How To Sell Ads In A Digital World

A Hard Truth

The digital advertising space is a bit of a mess.

Traditional print methods don’t cut it with a digital audience. Banner ads, display ads: they just don’t work

People either don’t see them – a phenomenon called banner blindness – or they hate them to the point of installing an ad-blocker. 

ZEEN101’s own Pete Ericson recently attended the National Newspaper Association’s annual trade show and was asked to lead a round table on digital advertising. He kicked it off with a simple question: “How do you sell digital advertising?”

Their answer? “We don’t.”

Though figuring out the solution is an ongoing process of trial and error, we are happy to report that gradually a winner is becoming clear.

And that winner is sponsored content.

Give Something To Get Something

The digital environment is full of stimuli. It’s a glowing screen screaming with bright colors and moving images. Readers have learned to tune out all the excess and hone in on what they actually want to see.

Which means that to get their attention, you can’t just throw a pretty picture and a few words into their periphery. You have to present something they actually want to see.

There are a few ways to do this, running out in a spectrum that starts pretty close to more traditional advertising.

Your Email List Pays Off

The first is still to present a display-style ad, but to do it in a contained environment surrounded by content they want from a source they trust.

This is where building up a strong email list pays off a secondary benefit: for a well-established newsletter, selling ad space in that newsletter can be a significant source of revenue.

Bo Sacks is a giant in the publishing industry with a resume a mile long. His email newsletter is touted as America’s oldest – he’s been running it since 1992. It’s a valued resource with a huge number of readers.

And he sells ad space in his newsletter for around $4000 a month.

There are 3 or 4 simple display-style ads in each newsletter.

You do the math.

(Just kidding; we’ll do the math for you: that’s $144,000-192,000 a year, just from that one revenue stream.)

Of course, Bo Sacks is literally the top of the game as far as email advertising goes, but it gives a good idea of the scope of possibility.

Name-Dropping on the Airwaves

Traditional radio-style advertisements also get a facelift in the realm of podcasts.

If you have a podcast, find sponsors that are related to your topics and sell them an audible ad: “Now a word from our sponsors” is a common refrain in the middle of many popular podcasts.

This straightforward kind of sponsorship – the declaration of association between a business and a product that readers love or knowledge that they want – works for websites as well.

Go take a look at the site for Madison Square Garden. It’s mostly subtle: small logos for sponsoring companies on specific events (I.e., “Chase Preferred Seating”) and a dedicated “Thank You To Our Sponsors” page.

But it obviously works for them.

This kind of digital spin on traditional methods is the low-hanging fruit of sponsored content. The real gold lies in the growing realm of native advertising.

Looks Like A Duck, Quacks Like A Duck…

Native advertising is the liminal space between advertising and content. It is advertising that matches the form of the space it inhabits.

So, for example, if you run a blog, native advertising looks like a blog post. If you run a digital magazine, it looks like an article.

But here’s the trick: it can’t just look like your content. To really work, your native advertising has to actually be content. It’s just content with a sponsor’s name attached.

It works like this:

You are writing (or want to write) a piece of content on a specific subject.

You reach out to advertisers who are associated with the topic and ask if they are interested in sponsoring the piece.

If that transaction is successful, they get a mention and a logo near the byline as a sponsor and possibly a link back in the body of the text itself.

But here is the number one, most important rule, if you want this to work: It has to be serious, hefty, valuable content. Not a puff piece, not a content snack.

It can be a thoughtful, well-researched piece on Vermont tourism, sponsored by a hotel chain or a ski resort. It can be a video series on combating cold and flu season, sponsored by a healthcare provider or a pharmaceutical company.

Either way, the content must actually offer something of worth to the reader. Otherwise, the reader won’t read it and the advertiser won’t want to pay for it.

Give something, to get something. That’s how digital advertising works.

A Newsfeed of Promotions

There is one other method of advertising open to digital publications, most specifically to local news sources: a marketplace for local businesses to instantly post current or near-future announcements, promotions, or events.

It runs kind of a like an instant classified section: a dedicated space for local restaurants to promote lunch specials, for real estate companies to post listings, for salons to post sudden openings.

The revenue comes from the local businesses, who pay a weekly or monthly fee for access to post their promotions instantly, whenever they want.

Village Soup was the pioneer of this technique – which they call a “digital Main Street”. They’ve been hosting these Main Streets for 13 years, with stunning results

Publications who stick with them have seen their online ad revenue reach 21% – the industry average is 5%.

That kind of success is why ZEEN101 has developed it’s own version of this method.

Live Market allows participating businesses 24/7 access to a set of tools that allow them to quickly and easily create dedicated ad pages for their promotions.

The headlines for those ads instantly appear at the top of a list on the major pages of the host publication.

It’s a tool that works for the advertisers and for the publications too.

Try Something New

So that’s the good news to balance out the bad.

Digital advertising may be tricky and old methods may not work anymore.

But there are ways to make it work and people who are proving that it’s possible. It’s just time to play the game a different way.

Want to learn more about the new ways to do digital advertising? Let’s talk.

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