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Create Essential Print Materials for Your Business

Paper is far from dead when you're running a small business.

Social media and online networking may be all the rage, but that doesn't mean you should neglect your small business's print presence.

Professional-looking print materials are essential for making a good real-world first impression, which is just as important--if not more so--as an online first impression for a small or midsize business.

Hiring a professional designer and ordering reams of professionally printed materials may be more than your budget allows. Luckily, you can design your own essential print collateral on the cheap--or even for free--using premade templates and programs you already own. Depending on how much print material you need, outsourcing to an online print shop also can be extremely budget-friendly.

That said, you shouldn't rush out to design all marketing materials yourself--designing and printing your own materials is time-consuming, and can be expensive if you don't know what you're doing. We've got three projects to get you started, but if you can afford it, it's a good idea to invest in a professional designer at some point.

The Print Materials You Need

In a world where online marketing is king, it's hard to determine which print materials are necessary, and which are just a waste of trees. Here are the three essentials every small business needs:

1. Business cards: No matter how small your business is, a simple, well-designed business card instantly gives you professional cred. Business cards are also the only way to exchange contact information other than digitally; after all, nobody is going to keep that napkin on which you scribbled your name and phone number.

2. Brochures: Trifold brochures may seem outdated, but they're an excellent marketing tool. How else can you cram a bunch of information, along with attractive graphics and photos, into a relatively small space?

3. Letterhead/Stationery: For interfacing with clients or customers, there's nothing quite like a handwritten letter or note. When it comes to branding, a handwritten letter or note on your business's personalized stationery is even better.

Other print materials to consider include stickers, shipping labels, newsletters, postcards, and handbills. Stickers are particularly useful for budget-minded businesses, because you can use them as stand-alone marketing tools or to brand various items, such as bags, boxes, and other packaging.

Design Basics

The first thing you'll need before committing anything to paper is a logo. If you don't have a logo that you love--or don't have one at all--now is the time to design one. The last thing you need is 500 business cards sporting a logo you hate.

If you can't afford a dedicated professional designer, consider posting an ad on an online job site such as Elance, hiring a student designer at a fraction of the cost of a professional designer, or using a service such as 99 Designs or LogoTournament.

99 Designs and LogoTournament let you "crowdsource" designs and host what's basically a design contest. It's pretty simple: Explain your project and how much you're willing to pay. (The minimums are $295 for 99 Designs and $275 for LogoTournament). Then designers willing to accept your price will start pitching you design ideas. After a week, you rank the designs and provide feedback. Designers then revise and resubmit their designs for you. At the end of the "contest," you either pick a design you like and pay the winner your proposed fee, or reject all of the designs and get your money back.

If you design your own logo, it's best to use a vector graphics software such as Adobe Illustrator. Vector graphics are different from raster graphics, which are made of pixels. Vector graphics, on the other hand, are made up of mathematically precise points and look good over a variety of sizes. A vector-graphics-based logo will look good no matter what size you make it. If you must use raster graphics, bigger is better for the original image, which you can always size down.

You can also use free logo design services such as those from Vistaprint or HP Marketsplash, or even a free download such as Logo Ease. But fair warning: Your logo may end up looking unprofessional or generic.

Once you have a logo, your online and print materials must be consistent. This doesn't mean you can't mix things up a little, as long as the major elements such as logo and logo font are the same. It's okay, for example, to use a different color scheme for a one-time event poster or a special holiday newsletter.

Though we're talking about paper products, be sure to remember your online presence. Put your website address on everything, even stickers. On business cards and brochures, include as much contact information as you're willing to share, along with social media details for Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and even Yelp, if your business has a decent presence there (though you should probably stay away from dying social media, such as MySpace).

Go Forth and Impress

Well-designed business print materials can help you make a truly lasting impression--unlike the ever-changing Web. Business cards, brochures, and a letterhead are just a few of the print materials you can make yourself or outsource on the cheap.

When outsourcing printing, remember to proof your projects carefully, and be aware of image resolution (usually 300 dots per inch or higher) and bleed (where the paper's edge cuts off your images and text), and you're sure to impress.

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