Web marketing 101

I was in Best Buy last week checking out those TV/DVD/VCR combos. Yes, I know that they're impractical, feature-deficient and poorly built. But I had my reasons and, trust me, they were noble. I'd been to the discount mega-store and found one with a 20" screen for about $200 (price and screen size were the only specs that really mattered in this hunt). So all I needed to do was 1) find the product, 2) look for the lowest price, 3) confirm they had some in stock, and 4) leave.

Maybe it was because it was early afternoon on a Wednesday, but, good-friggin-night, I have never in my life been so accosted by blue shirts. I honestly started to wonder if this was some kind of put-on. I could not believe that so many employees could have nothing better to do than ask one of the 5 customers in the store if they could "help [me] find anything." I'd seen this kind of thing done, and I began to wonder if there were cameras somewhere filming my reaction to be posted for millions of YouTubians to enjoy. Could this lady in blue and khaki truly have not heard or seen no less than seven of her colleagues ask me the very same thing in the past four minutes?!

"NO! There is nothing you can help me with today! Unless you're willing to buy me a cheap TV with your employee discount, okay?"

So, when I sat down to write about internet ads, I wondered if my experience at Best Buy is how people occasionally feel when they're assailed by the most obnoxious forms of web marketing that's out there. Now don't get me wrong; I'm not suggesting that the kind of ads running on The Tech Report rise - er, sink - to the level of the suffocating "customer service" I endured. But maybe those of you who occasionally gripe about our ad banners are just sick and tired of all the marketing noise that's thrown up across the web. Although you never have to search for a hidden ([x] close) button or sit through a mini-commercial just to read our content, sometimes even standard ad banners can blend in with and come to represent what we don't like about the internet.

But take a moment to consider the ads you see on The Tech Report, as compared to what you find at many other sites. We truly strive to seek out advertisers whose products and services are as relevant to our audience as possible. And then we ensure that the format of their marketing campaigns will not offend the average reader's sensibilities. Yes, we have refused well-paying campaigns from specific companies. And we regularly turn down formats that we know would annoy many of you (and us).

Nevertheless, many still tire of the cycling graphics intended to attract you to some deal of the month or internet special. Maybe you're quite happy with your wireless phone provider and simply don't care if Verizon will give you a free phone when you buy one for $49.99. Or you don't really need "The Crucial System Scanner" to take the mystery out of finding the right RAM, because, frankly, all RAM is priced a bit high right now... and even when you do buy some, you already know what kind of RAM your system needs... cause you built the dang thing!! And why would you sign up for free PC magazines, when you get technology news online? That's why you're here, isn't it?

The fact is, though, that a retailer as large as Best Buy has the resources to do serious research on sales and marketing techniques. And, whether we DIYers like it or not, their research indicates that sales, specifically cross sells and up sells, increase significantly when their blue shirts are trained to ask customers if they need help. For every self-confident, educated and savvy tech consumer who gets turned off by the aggressive CSR directing them to the featured notebook of the week, there are apparently several green shoppers who are more than willing to see what blue can do for them.

Ditto with web marketing. You'd really think that companies who market their wares to readers of The Tech Report would understand that they probably don't need to hold your hand and provide aid and comfort for a commodity tech purchase. But you know what? These guys run a wide variety of marketing creative, carefully track performance of the campaigns, and then specifically target and weight the banners for maximum impact.

Although I've mentioned this in several Forum threads, I'll say it again. Yes, we understand that you'd prefer to see unobtrusive text-only ad banners in barely-visible low-contrast boxes at the bottom of the content well. But those just can't pay the bills, no matter how you slice it. Even a large, prominent Google AdSense banner that's strategically placed at the top of the far right column or smack dab in the middle of an article will pay, at best, one sixth of what an animated ad will fetch in the same spot. The reality is that readers do click the eye-catching (distracting?) ads, believe it or not. Our own ad-server stats verify that an animated GIF or Flash banner will perform overwhelmingly better than a static GIF or a text ad. Yes, I do request banners that are not animated, but rarely are advertisers willing to pay an acceptable rate for them because they don't usually perform as well. Furthermore, page-takeovers, interstitials and expand-on-mouseovers apparently perform even better than your run-of-the-mill Flash banners, because they pay substantially more than the fixed-dimension banners. (I can't personally verify this because The Tech Report refuses these formats.)

That brings me to the question of how exactly the ads pay. Per Click, per impression, commission on sales, or something else? Yes, yes, yes and yes. Depending on the company, their marketing agenda and other factors, advertisers seek to place marketing campaigns that pay in a variety of ways. Generally, their preference is the "affiliate" approach, with a commission-style pay-out. As a publisher, that model is our least favorite, because it has no guaranteed return and puts us in the awkward position of hoping our readers click on the ads instead of reading our content. We have experimented with a few of these affiliate relationships, with mixed results. I can discuss those more later.

The model we prefer is what's commonly called "CPM" pricing, which pays based upon the number of ad impressions served, regardless of whether readers click on the ads or purchase the featured products or services. When I can sell advertisers long-term ad space under this model, it makes me very happy. This approach allows me to accurately project revenue into the future without fretting over whether readers click on ads -- and if they do, whether they come back to TR to finish reading the article or not. Before going further, let me thank companies like OCZ, VIA, BFG Tech, Corsair, XFX, ECS, NCIX and ABIT for having marketing policies that seem more focused on supporting the enthusiast community and "brand building" than categorizing every click and sale. Obviously, though, we still hope people click their ads, because we'd like to see this model prove successful for them.

This is supposed to be a blog post, not a feature article, so I'll cut if off for now. There's more we could cover on this subject, like performance tracking, who hosts the ads, more about interstitials and expandables mentioned above, intelliTXT and ContentLink keyword ads, and the effect of ad-blocking on The Tech Report and the enthusiast community as a whole. If after slogging through this post anyone's still interested in these subjects or others related to the advertising side of this publication, let me know and I'll continue on this topic down this road.

Cheers for now!

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