Some of the 'Net's best sites are the ones built for love, not money. When someone takes a subject near and dear to their heart and builds an extensive resource site including everything they know, not only is the content rich with personal knowledge but the public tends to trust it more than a site that is obviously profit-driven.
Does advertising ruin that credibility? It certainly can. But what many people don't realize is that advertising can be a draw and a benefit to a site, if done correctly. Selling text ads for link popularity may earn some cash, but it certainly won't impress your site visitors.
A Print Precedent
There is a local paper I get that is pretty thin on content. A story or two about the local mayor's office, chamber of commerce, or police happenings and some local press releases from area churches and schools are pretty much all that's in there.
I read it for the advertising!
I like to find out who's having a sale, what's opened up and any special deals going on in my neighborhood. If the advertising weren't included, it wouldn't be very useful to me.
The same is true of industry trade magazines, fashion magazines, daily newspapers and other periodicals- the advertising is a large part of why we read them!
The Web Isn't As Different As You Might Think
Unfortunately, many web sites don't treat their advertising as content. They accept ads from anyone who is willing to pay to be listed and the ads aren't targeted to their users. Generic ads rarely "speak" to anyone.
Advertising that is keyed to the site's users can convert at a phenomenally high rate. What do I mean by "keyed to the site's users"? Let's take an example.
A Local Parent Portal
I've run a parenting site in my local community for many years. Since I'm a webhead and NOT a salesperson, my first attempt at monetization was affiliate banners. It seemed like the perfect fit!
I added banners from all the top family-friendly companies like Target, Shutterfly, Walmart, Coldwater Creek and more... things that I thought would appeal to moms. It doesn't get more targeted than THAT, was my thinking. The results were utterly dismal. With over half a million page views a month, I had maybe a dozen click throughs and no sales. I resigned myself to doing the site as a personal hobby and not as a revenue-producer.
When Google's Adsense program came out, I decided to add it to my portal. Finally, a small stream of income, enough to cover hosting costs, at least! But I still felt something was missing.
A direct postcard mailing to local businesses had moderate success... I picked up a few local advertisers without having to do a lot of "face time" which was good because I didn't charge enough for personal service.
What surprised me was the stats on the new local ads... they were interspersed with the affiliate ads and immediatly started attracting 5 times as many clickthroughs as the national affiliate ads. People WERE looking at the ads and they wanted something different- they could buy from Target or Amazon any day of the week. There was nothing unique about those ads! But give them some local businesses and they wanted to learn more.
Not only did the ads start driving revenue, they stimulated community activity. Members started asking about the businesses they saw advertised and discussing their experiences with them. The businesses got more involved as well, answering questions and posting things like special sale info, just for our site!
Targeted advertising (local businesses) turned the site from a static resource and a hobby into a real business. It made all the difference in both revenues and member activity which a key to future revenues. I reworked the layout to actually feature the ads more prominently and the response in both revenue and member comments was very positive. Local ad requests now come through on their own as more business owners become aware of it.
Targeting made all the difference. Targeting generic "moms" wasn't successful... that isn't who the site was designed to attract in the first place. It was designed for moms in a specific geographic region and the local ads were a perfect match.
A Trade Group
Another quick example is a trade group community I've run for years. It started out as part of a commercial site, so we ran banner ads at the top of the forum for sales and specials. While we never made any sales "pitches" in the discussion of the forum, those banners drove a lot of sales for our business!
They were highly targeted to the audience, advertising things that the members needed anyway. We changed them often, highlighting deals and specials instead of just "branding". Keeping them fresh kept them from blending in and being overlooked by repeat visitors. By and large, any banner that offered a discount or limited time offer was a hit.
When we converted to a industry-wide trade group, we opened the advertising up to anyone in the industry. At first, I worried that people would think we had "sold out" and didn't actively solicit ads. Imagine my surprise when a competing trade group popped up, and the reason people claimed to like it was because of all the advertising on it!
That certainly woke me up. People wanted to see the newest things they could buy- they enjoyed the different manufacturer and vendor ads. All of my "purist" non-commercial instincts were dead wrong. Commerce is a part of the industry and it made perfect sense to feature a wide variety of ads targeted to business owners in that niche.
Keep it Fresh
We had no trouble attracting industry advertisers and it did add an exciting element to the site. I noticed our new advertisers would get a flurry of clicks in the first month... then taper off to almost nothing. Why? They didn't keep their ad fresh- it just got ignored. "Ad Blindness" occurs when people start blocking out the ads on the page- why should they keep looking at the same old thing?
New advertising and new offers will keep your members interested and your advertisers getting the traffic that will keep them coming back. The ads are content and should be updated frequently, especially if you get a lot of repeat visitors!
Bad, Bad Ads
You have to be very sensitive to how you deliver the ads on your site. A one-time interstitial soliciting a newsletter sign-up is very different from an interstitial that pops up every few pages and can't be blocked. Flash ads that run when users unsuspectingly mouse over a part of the page are disturbing and simply rude. Ads that annoy visitors and refuse to be blocked or ads that interfere with navigation or other key parts of your site give users the impression that you are greedy and desperate and don't care about their experience.
Good ads don't need to be thrust into the users' faces with pop-ups, pop-unders or interstitial that gallop across the page regularly. Forcing ads on people is a sure way to lose your repeat traffic and any loyalty you've built up.
It All Works Together
Interesting ads that are appropriate for your site visitors not only bring in revenue that will allow you to expand the site and do more with it, but can actually be one of the reasons people like to visit your site... just like my local newspaper.
Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.
Scottie Claiborne is the facilitator of the Successful Sites Newsletter. She is a speaker at the Search Engine Strategies conferences and the High Rankings Seminars as well as the administrator of the High Rankings Forum.
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