The ethical journalist's guide to selling ads on a website: Part three

I hope that over the past two weeks of this series [week one | week two], you’ve come to see the parallel between advertising sales and news reporting: That is, to be successful, you must do a great deal of reporting before you write anything on paper or the Web.

Now, it’s time to take that next step. As we do that, let’s not forget that the key to landing an advertiser is to make the case that by advertising with you, the client will be able to reach an audience of readers who are interested in the client’s product or service and open to trying it.

Step 7) Create your ad sales material

You will need material that you can post on your website, as well as printed material that you can hand or send to potential advertising clients.

This material should include:

  • The name of your site
  • A short description of what your site covers (e.g. “ covers the Widgetville community” or “ covers the flugelhorn players, teachers, makers and fans”).
  • A summary of relevant data from your readership survey and statistics
  • Your rate card
  • A short explanation why readers are likely to continue coming to your website (e.g. “Our [award-winning | interactive | daily] coverage is drawning a growing audience of readers from the [Widgetville | flugelhorn] community.”)
  • Contact information where potential clients can get more information or place an order

    The summary of data about your readers should include:

  • The number of absolute unique visitors to the site in a day, week or month (depending upon the length of ad packages you are selling)
  • The percentage of those readers who live in your geographic coverage area (if you are a locally-focused website – this isn’t necessary if you are publishing a topical website)
  • The average number of pageviews seen by readers in a day, week or month.
  • The time spent on the site by the average visitor.
    This information should be available from your site analytic stats. The information below would need to come from a random-sample readership survey.

  • The median household income of your readers
  • The median age of your readers
  • The percentage of readers who have interest in particular products or services
  • The percentage of readers who have taken action after seeing an ad on a website. (After several months of running ads, resurvey and find the percentage who have taken action after seeing an ad on your website.)

    Some publishers are not comfortable placing their specific readership numbers and advertising rates on the Web for all (including competing publishers) to see. Personally, I’m not. But you are, go ahead and use more general data for your readership (e.g. “we reach an audience of tens of thousands of readers each month…”). But be sure to write on your as sales page that you do have more specific data and that you are willing to send it to a potential client, upon request.

    As for your rate card, even if you do not publish the actual rates your charge, do include on your website a list of the ad packages available, including ad dimensions, formats and number of impressions available. Again, follow that with an e-mail address or phone number where potential advertisers can get the price of each package.

    Your printed ad sales material should look professional, on high quality or glossy paper, and include all of the information I listed above. You may choose to print the material as a brochure, or on letter-sized sheets, which might be included in a printed folder with your site’s name and logo. Either way, I would attach a business card to the material when you deliver it. Use a local printer, or your own desktop publishing skills (if they are up to a professional level), to create the material, and print enough copies to last you for a few months.

    Step 8) Deliver your sales material

    The first place to deliver your materials is on your own website. Post your ad sales page, and make sure that it is linked to in your site’s navigation, from every page on your site. I would also consider doing a front-page blog post or story alerting your readers to the new page, and the fact that you are now accepting ads. If people respond to that post, engage them. You might find client leads there, as well as reader concerns. You don’t want to create advertising that turns off your readers. That doesn’t serve you, or your advertisers. Whatever money you might make in the short term from such ads would come at the long-term expense of your business, the website. So listen to what your readers have to say, explain your point of view, and make changes to your plans, if necessary.

    You might find that simply placing the ad sales material on your website is enough to get you an initial batch of leads. Work them before you do anything else. Ideally, they’ll contact you with orders. If they simply have questions, answer them. You want to build a business relationship with these potential clients, the same way you would build an information relationship with a potential source. Ask them about their needs, what they want in reaching potential customers, then tell them how you see your audience potentially helping them.

    Okay, now what about approaching potential clients directly? Well, from looking at competing websites, you should have the names of their advertisers, who might be interesting in becoming yours, as well. If you are running a locally focused website, you can find potential clients looking at the outfield fences at Little League games, in the programs at performing arts events, and at sponsorship banners at local fairs and festivals. These are the business that are willing to support local enterprises, and therefore, most likely to support yours.

    Go to a chamber of commerce or local merchants’ meeting and meet people. If you are running a topic-focused website, you can travel to a trade show and walk the floor.

    When you meet people at these events, introduce yourself as the publisher of your website, tell what your site covers, and how many readers you reach. Say that you are looking for advertisers and ask if you can give or send them your material. If you are walking the floor at a trade show, have your packets with you in bag and hand them one, along with your card. If you are at a local merchants’ meeting, just exchange cards and ask for a time to call on them.

    Step 9) Close the sale

    When you speak with a potential client, don’t guarantee click-throughs, leads or sales. Don’t promise them anything that you cannot deliver. Simply promise them what you can deliver – ad impressions. Then tell the client what you’ve learned about your readers from your research.

    No hard sell: Don’t pressure a client into an ad that won’t for it. And don’t try to close a sale by promising something you cannot be certain of delivering. Both will destroy the relationship you are trying to build and prevent you from growing your advertising revenue in future months. Don’t fall into the “churn” trap that crippled so many newspapers. You want to sign advertisers who trust and respect you and will keep doing business with you in the future. You won’t bat 1.000 on that, but you want that percentage as high as you can get it.

    Don’t sell your content; just the opportunity to reach your readers: This is what concerns most journalists I’ve met who are thinking about selling ads on their sites. They fear that they will be compromising their editorial integrity. Well, you’re not selling that. You’re not even putting it on the table. You’re simply selling ad space.

    Truth is, most smart advertisers don’t want you to sell your editorial content. They know that they do better with websites that offer good, solid, accurate content that readers will turn to again and again. Where they’ll that ad, again and again.

    Still, some people are asking publishers to post favorable blog posts and articles in exchange for payment. I reject those folks when they come to me and I hope that you will, too. Besides, those advertisers don’t pay nearly as much as the ones who do want you to do your reporting job right.

    Which leads me to…

    Do appeal to their sense of community: You are not some out-of-town corporation. You are a member of this community (whether it be physical or topical) and you are doing something with your website that helps build and sustain that community. Civic-minded businesses appreciate that. So remind them.

    When you find a client who wants to sign, you will need a contract and an insertion order form. Often, you can handle both on one page. I’ve found plenty of good sample ad contracts and order forms to customize from or simply by Googling “sample ad contracts.” Then slot the ads using Google AdManager or OpenX or whatever ad management tool you’ve selected.

    Once you have clients, sustain your relationship with them. Send them delivery and click statistics each month, along with your invoice. Give them a specific due date by which to pay and follow up. Consider a merchant account on PayPal or some other online service to enable credit card payments from clients.

    And keep going to those trade shows and chamber of commerce meetings. Talk to clients about how their ads on your site are working for them. If you get some good testimonials, make sure to put them into your ad materials, both printed and on your website. The word of other advertisers can be your best tools to help land additional sales.

    You deserve to be well paid for your good work. For many of us, landing advertising clients will be the way we get paid. So don’t be afraid to ask for them. You know how to now. Best wishes for your success as go do this.

  • About Robert Niles

    Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


    1. Robert,
      I am not a prolific commenter, but I just had to say how I was impressed with how you got across all of the big points in such short punchy articles.

      Many Thanks – I will put this to good use.