Six keys to local news start up advertising revenue success

1. Keep it simple, stupid. The typical small business owner now knows the web is important and is even excited to get involved in web marketing, but he or she hasn’t had time to really understand the web.  If you start talking with them about banner rotations, click-throughs and impressions, they will tune you out. You need to sell advertising in terms they understand, which means a flat rate for a given period of time (such as monthly).  Most of your advertisers are used to buying ads from the local shopper (such as the PennySaver). That is a good model for how you should price and position your ads.  I see a lot of start up sites using page designs modeled after newspaper sites, which means there is a limited number of ad positions and ad rotation. The typical small business owner hates rotation.  When they hit your site, they want to see their own ad — every time.  If they have to keep reloading the page to see their ads, they get frustrated. They start to question the effectiveness of their advertising on your site ("nobody ever sees my ad, because I never see it). You need to remember, you’re a start up. The business owner doesn’t know you, doesn’t know your business, doesn’t know if it will work.  The lack of visibility caused by rotation only reinforces these doubts.  Your page design needs to accommodate an unlimited number of ads so that every ad you sells appears on every page view.

2. It’s the relationship, stupid.  There is a certain magical thinking I come across on the web that self-service ads will solve all of our problems. Selling and servicing individual advertisers is time consuming.  Depending on your selling style, you might need to call on each advertiser multiple times to get a signed contract, and then you’ve got to build the ad and monitor its metrics.  You also need to maintain regular (at least monthly) contact with the advertiser.  It seems obvious: Self-service would be so much less time consuming.  But, go back and look at rule 1: keep it simple, stupid. No matter how simple you might think your self-service web application is, it’s not simple enough for the busy small business owner who has neither the time nor the inclination to learn the web as well as you know it.  Don’t think self-service will be your savior.  It will be your doom.  While selling and maintaining ads is time consuming, it’s also a chance for you to get to know your advertisers, and them to get to know you.  You’re not really selling banner impressions. You’re selling yourself and your vision.  Small business owners naturally tend to root for other small business owners.  The small business owners in your community can be your early converts and your early fans. They’re the most networked people in your community. When they become your fans, it starts to create the impression that "everybody" in town is reading your news.  That may not be the truth at first, but pursue this strategy and it soon will be.

3. It’s all about market share. The first thing you should do when planning your ad sales campaign is figure out who advertises the most across multiple platforms. Try to discern who has the best grasp of marketing. You also need to know who are the local business leaders — the local business owners other business owners respect the most.  These are your HOTs (high opportunity targets).  Go after these businesses first.  There’s an old rule of brand building — associate your brand with other brands that people trust.  You want to know what the best brands in your community are, and then make sure they become your first advertisers. If you have to discount your rate card by 75 percent to sign a HOT, do it.  Sign the HOTs and at any and all cost until you’ve got five to ten of these advertisers on your site.  The business owners who would otherwise sit on the sidelines will now be easier to sell. Also, the HOTs competitors will be more likely to want to not be left out. Further, having a lot of ads on your site doesn’t just help you sell more ads, it helps you build credibility with readers.  If a new reader logs on and sees several local ads, he or she is going to know you run a site that is popular locally, and they’re going to feel more compelled to return.  You should start selling ads the first day you’re in business, because selling ads isn’t just about making money; it’s also about building audience.

4. If you’re local, be local.  If you believe in hyperlocal news, you should also believe in hyperlocal advertising.  I think everybody who talks about hyperlocal news talks about it in terms of local-only news, no national news (readers can get it too easily elsewhere); rather, local means a keen focus on the defined local community.  So, why, then, would a hyperlocal site put a national ad network ads on its pages? It’s beyond stupid.  One of the great ways you can build a relationship with local advertisers is talk about how you are there to promote the local business community. If you’re simultaneously taking ad network ads (or admit a willingness to accept chain advertising), you’re undercutting your local-only message.  Trust me, there’s more revenue to be made in hyperlocal advertising than diminishing that opportunity by displaying non-local advertising (local being defined as a locally or regionally owned business, not a national company and not a chain).

5. Don’t overprice your ads.  There is a tendency to think that just because the local newspaper site is getting $15 to $75 CPM, your site should also get $15 or more CPM.  You need to remember, yours is a disruptive business.  You need to deliver more value at a lower price, especially in the start up phase when you’re trying to win trust.  Your flat rate ad should be priced low enough that its a pretty easy decision for a small business owner to go, "What  the heck, I’ll give it a try."  (Of course, the price needs to be still high enough that when you sell out your target number of ads, you’re profitable.)

6. Don’t be afraid of metrics. if you follow the model of putting every ad on every page, you’re going to deliver to your advertisers a significant number of ad impressions. That number will be impressive in itself.  But more importantly, for most of your advertisers, you’re going to send their sites more traffic than just about any other web site (save Google or Facebook).  It’s simple math: a .03 percent click-through rate on 400,000 impressions gives an advertiser more visits to his or her site than 100,000 impressions (delivered in rotation — also rotation ads get local click-through rates) These are numbers that will demonstrate to most advertisers that their ads on your site are delivering sufficient results for the price you’re charging.  Share these metrics with your advertisers.  Even when the click-through rate is less than 1 percent, you’re still bringing more attention to their business than pretty much any other online marketing they might try (if your site is getting a good amount of traffic for your market), and you will have an especial advantage over any newspaper site competitor you might have (which is doing rotation, probably).  This is one of the key benefits of the "unlimited inventory" model (as opposed to the "limited inventory" model most newspapers sell).

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