trends

Getting More Bang for Your Buck

Stewart Tongue
As the world economy moves into another month of prolonged recession and businesses continue to look for ways to earn more while spending less, successful webmasters are finding that money well spent is still much better than money not spent. In some areas of development and maintenance there are savings to be found by tightening operations and ratcheting up the efficiency of your web properties, but one area that remains hazy for many site owners is the ad-buying segment of the market.

Ad spots, traffic buys, B2B campaigns and offline marketing may not have specific visible values on your balance sheet immediately recordable the way a discount on hosting or a decrease in processing fees would display. However, in a shrinking market, expanding your customer base and strengthening your brand can have wide-reaching, lasting, positive effects on all other aspects of your businesses. So when should you reach for your wallet, and when should you pass on a potential new revenue stream?

Lea Busick, director of marketing and sales for industry powerhouse TopBucks.com, looks at the decision as a two-part question. "In looking for good ad spots, there are two primary things you should be concerned with, and they are the same whether the spot is online or in a print publication: volume of exposure and presence of our target audience" Busick said. "A well-targeted outlet isn't much good to you if it isn't seen by many people, and conversely, a ton of exposure won't have a good return if it is exposure to the wrong audience."

Of course, the devil is in the details, because when trying to determine the amount of exposure and the presence of your own target audience for a particular ad, webmasters are left with some very vague tools to use while seeking to obtain a specific measurement. Looking at the PageRank of a site, the Alexa Ranking and other externally tracked factors can often be unhelpful due to honest inaccuracies in those calculations and can even be completely false when unscrupulous ad sellers engage in 'spoofing' and other black-hat techniques designed to game the ranking systems rather than work to generate real results.

"When we consider an ad buy we spend a lot more time than money," Clement of VideosZ.com said. "Throwing thousands of dollars at an ad without taking the time to really look closely at what you are getting for your investment is foolish. Someone is always willing to accept your money, so finding a good spot is always possible, but there are many important factors to consider before agreeing to anything. I look at the basics of PageRank, Alexa and other metrics just to get a basic idea about the site. More importantly I consider things like the placement on the page, whether the ad is in rotation or static, how much control I'll have over the message the ad displays and the overall question of whether or not the site is providing something real people would actually be interested in… because if it's not a site I find interesting or useful it's unlikely my potential customers would find it interesting or useful. The other key ingredient is seeing who else is advertising on the same site. Being in with other similar ads dilutes the value of my ad, but even more importantly, this is a small world, and usually you'll know some of the other advertisers so you can contact them and ask them how their ad is doing before you consider buying one of your own."

As the ad-buying part of this business continues to become more complex, many webmasters are hiring professional ad managers to handle their campaign budgets. "Honestly, these days, buying ad spots is getting more and more complicated for site owners looking to monetize their ad dollars effectively," Mark of GalleryTrafficService.com said. "I know it sounds self-serving, but if you are planning to buy online ad spots you really should consult with an expert and go through a broker. The number of scams is on the rise, and only a trained online ad pro will be able to find you spots worth purchasing with your own hard-earned money. Besides, if you buy through a broker, and it doesn't work out... you can always drop the broker."

"One area of advertising that is inexpensive and often overlooked is the Press Release," Lori Z. of TheAdultBroker.com said. "That gets your brand out there through many channels, and it offers up the opportunity for sales, which is why you would advertise somewhere in the first place. A well-written press release can also inform affiliates and potential customers with far more detail than any banner spot ever would."

What about placing ads in offline media via television, radio and print? "Determining the ROI on ads that cannot be tracked directly — like magazine or radio advertising, for example — can be a tricky business," said Kim Kysar, brand and product manager for Pink Visual. "In some ways, no matter how sophisticated you get, there is always going to be some guesswork and assumptions at play when evaluating that kind of advertising. Personally, I look at branding campaigns very differently than I do ad campaigns designed to create a direct sale and revenue response. When branding is the goal, I'm less concerned about a directly measurable ROI than I am about making sure that the ad spots we buy are germane to the product or service I'm trying to create mindshare for. Are the spots being exposed in places where the right audience will see them? Will a sufficient number of eyeballs see my ad? These are the questions I ask myself when it comes to branding."

Some online ad buys are about Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and increasing the organic traffic of your properties as much as they are about human traffic generation. Evaluating quality SEO link purchases can be the hardest part of managing your ad budget because SEO links are the kind of spots most often deceptively sold by their site owners. There is no shortage of frauds who claim to know SEO and magic-bean salesmen willing to let you get in on a get-rich-quick link buying scheme.

"People get screwed all the time trying to buy SEO link packs cheap, and the results are often not only unhelpful but in fact detrimental to their sites," said noted SEO guru MarkE4A of RanksDirect.com. "At the end of the day there is no substitute for reputation. If you know the person who owns the sites selling links, or you know many people who are willing to recommend them, that's the most important thing. I think the same is true for advertising outside of SEO value, as well by the way. When I buy ads I want to know who I am getting them from, I want to be sure they have a clean and honest reputation, and I want them to know that helping my sites to become more successful will earn them a lot more money [in the] long term than trying to screw me out of a few hundred bucks on a one-time ad buy."

All the many people I spoke with regarding this article, both the ones quoted in it and the many who offered background viewpoints, were unanimous in their belief that advertising is essential to growing your business during these harsh times. The question that needs to be considered is how to advertise best and what to look for when trying to do it more efficiently. However, some nervous business owners are too afraid these days of taking a loss to see the whole playing field clearly.

As Jake Ozegovic, director of sales for SilverCash.com, explained: "These days it seems that just the word 'advertising' alone has possible sponsors running for the hills. It's quite the difference from years of old when advertising seemed to be more about showing how much money you had than any real ROI. Many of us are looking for ways we can cut costs or streamline our businesses, but cutting advertising completely could be detrimental to the longevity of your company. Do your homework, track things as much as possible, and remember to negotiate. Advertising is still as important, if not more important, today than it has been in the past; we just need to be smarter about it."

Ad-spot sellers are well aware of the shift in mindset among ad buyers and the quality of ads being sold is rapidly improving as a result. Contextual Keyword ads, valuable productivity sites with loyal audiences, multi-media online and offline ad packages, intelligently designed multi-host SEO linking deals and many other avenues for attracting customers and affiliates are available for marketers who choose wisely. The days of throwing gold coins out the window and hoping a potential customer gets hit in the head by one are over — but buying ads effectively is an inexpensive and powerful way to broaden your audience, strengthen your brand and generate long-term revenue growth.

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