One of the toughest challenges that new journalism entrepreneurs face is: Do I have to sell my own ads?
The journalism industry’s traditional ethical “wall” dividing advertising and editorial has left some journalists so frightened by the idea of selling to potential advertisers that they choose not even to try launching their own news websites. Few of us wish to comprise our journalistic integrity by having to sell ads.
But selling ads shouldn’t comprise your integrity – it’s selling your editorial which does that. If potential customers think that they’re getting both for the price of one – well, you’ll just have to set them straight, won’t you? (Check out our series on selling ads ethically here and here and here for help.)
If you’re worried what your fellow journalists will think, well, don’t. Here’s my new ethical rule: Journalists who’ve found an active source of customer income (from ads, subscriptions, grants, contributions or whatever) in the post-mainstream-media world don’t have to listen to complaints from those who haven’t.
Ethical concerns now put aside, new publishers face a more compelling concern in selling ads: Time.
The checklist a start-up news publisher confronts is daunting. Everything that a news entrepreneur can off-load onto someone else frees time for other important tasks.
In an ideal situation, a news entrepreneur would be able to outsource her ad sales to a network, such as Google’s AdSense. But ad networks don’t work for every website.
The division between sites which make significant amounts of money from ad networks and those which do not is not random. Several identifiable characteristics determine whether you’ll be one of those who can leave the ads to an outside service, or if you’ll be among those publishers who’ll just have to reserve time each day for ad sales.
Your target geography
The broader your market, the more likely an ad network will be able to find advertisers that will attract enough of your readers to make you a significant amount of money. For that reason, ad networks work best in serving websites targeted at a national or international audience.
If you’re covering a local community, it’s far less likely that you’ll find a network selling directly into your market (and if you do, they’re your competition). Larger, national networks might pick up some of your local advertisers, but odds are that you’ll be looking at a page filled with poorly targeted, irrelevant ads from outside your community if you stick with something such as AdSense for your neighborhood news website.
Do you have a topical niche?
If broad geography serves you well in working with ad networks, the opposite is true with the topical focus of a website’s coverage. A sharply defined single topic for your site attracts the most – and most lucrative – ads from a network.
By publishing a global website focused on a single topic, ad networks can identify a specific class of advertisers interested in reaching your readers and draw from a international marketplace of those advertisers to bid for space on your site. That offers you a collection of sharply focused ads, of high interest to your readers, which will elicit relatively high click and response rates.
With a general-interest site, ad targeting ends up all over place, making it harder for your network to place ads on a given page that will interest the readers of that page.
Put yourself in an advertiser’s position. If you want to sell the most widgets for each dollar you spend on ads, would you rather place your ad on “Wally’s Widget World” or “Wally’s Hometown Gazette”? Sure, you might find a few widget fans on the Gazette website, but you know they’re all over the Widget World website. So that’s where you’ll want to place your ad.
Whether an ad network allows for manual targeting such as this, or places ads through an automated process, the result is the same. Sites with a narrow topic focus get better, more relevant and more product ads than those without. That means more money for the niche publishers.
Do your potential advertisers employ an ad agency?
Think of 10 business you believe would be a good fit as advertisers on your website – ones trying to reach people in the community you’re covering and selling products related to that community’s interests.
Are these businesses likely to employ an ad agency to create and place their ads, or not?
If a business has contracted its advertising to an agency, it’s pointless for you to try to sell directly to that business. They’re simply going to refer you to their agency. And agencies don’t want to deal with hundreds of individual publishers in placing their ads. That’s the “pain” that ad networks evolved to alleviate. If your target advertisers place ads through agencies, you’re better served by outsourcing your ad service to the network or networks which those agencies deal with.
Don’t assume, though, that every large or lucrative business works with ad agencies. On our violin website, we’ve had little success with network ads because so many of the shops and makers in the classical music world are family-owned and operated. In that business, there are people selling multi-million dollar instruments… who design and place their own ads. So we have to sell directly.
Most journalists coming from a traditional newspaper or local broadcast background envision their new news website working in much the same way: covering a variety of general interest stories within a defined local geographic community. And that’s great. We need local coverage in our news media.
But the mix of local geography, general interest and (likely) smaller business advertisers is exactly the wrong mix of qualities for success with an established advertising network. If this is your editorial model, prepare yourself for the job of selling your own advertising.
If you really want to avoid ad sales and find financial success as an online publisher, you increase your chances for success by working instead to create a topical niche site with a national or global audience, appealing to big business advertisers who contract with major agencies.
And then, of course, you’ll also need to become an expert in SEO to create the sharply-targeted content that will maximize your return from these networked ads.
I’ve seen too many would-be online news publishers jump into creating a website without thinking first about from where the money will come. Wishing isn’t a business strategy. If you don’t believe that you can sell ads on your news website – or find someone who can – then you should rethink what type of site you want to create before you devote any more time to it.
And if you think you can avoid the challenge of selling ads for a local, general interest news website by going non-profit, allow me to inform you that going non-profit entails just as much work as (if not more than) selling ads. But that’s a topic for another post.
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If you’d like to explore the online news publication business in greater detail, with one-on-one coaching and instruction for your website, please apply for the KDMC News Entrepreneur Boot Camp. It’s a free online and in-person instructional course, with the in-person camp happening in May in Los Angeles. We’ll have top business school faculty and online news publishers lined up to help you make your news website a success. The application deadline is Friday, January 14, 2011.