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The Analog Process of Selling Digital Ads

Posted on Sunday, June 26, 2011 at 1:29 PM

Mastering the unique challenges of selling online advertising.

By William Dunkerley

Demands for lower prices and higher click-through rates are everywhere.

Requests for detailed Web metrics are increasingly frequent.

They're all part of a unique set of complexities that are integral to the business of selling advertising for online publications. There are hidden challenges. Without mastery of those challenges, results may fall considerably short of potential. And that could spell lost revenue for any publisher.

Collective Inexperience

A lot of publishers know well that their ad people are neophytes at online sales. But there is something they often overlook: the buyers of online advertising frequently have limited experience themselves. This isn't a criticism of either the salespeople or the buyers. After all, the field is evolving so quickly that it's hard for any of the participants to know right moves from wrong.

There is a common telltale sign of an inexperienced online advertising representative: He usually begins a sales presentation by telling the prospect about your traffic count and click-through rate. And then he talks about the richness of Web metrics that you can provide. What's wrong with that? The problem is that it's all about your publication. Advertisers are typically more interested in their own businesses than in your words. They will become interested in your publication only after they understand how your publication can help their business.

The "Probe"

Finding out how your publication can help the prospect's business is your ad sales person's job. In order to do that, she needs to find out what the advertiser is trying to achieve. What are the company's immediate and long-term sales and marketing objectives? Once she learns that, she can formulate a pitch to explain to the advertiser how your publication can help meet its objectives.

This process is called the "probe." While the term "probe" seems to suggest an active role for the salesperson, it doesn't mean that he should be doing a lot of the talking. In fact, the best probes are conducted when the salesperson is doing a lot of listening and the prospect is doing most of the talking. That's the idea of the probe. It is to get the prospect talking about her objectives. The salesperson should use skillful question-asking to steer the conversation and keep it on-topic. But that's all. This is a process of discovery.

Ad Buyer Inexperience

On the ad buyer side of things, there is also a common telltale sign of inexperience: when her first questions are about your traffic count, click-through rate, and Web metrics. Another sign is if she is looking to buy banner advertisements. These assertions may sound counterintuitive to you. That's because so many ad buyers are asking these very questions. But the advertiser may have made some faulty assumptions about what works and about what will help achieve his objectives.

Here are some facts: One of the key attributes of an effective advertisement is its size. Larger ads have a proven track record of performing better. That's why in the print world, all things being equal, any advertiser would rather have a full-page ad than a tiny fractional. The full-page will have a greater impact and, in turn, produce greater results. Banner ads are the digital equivalents of tiny fractionals.

Do Click-throughs Matter?

Then there is the matter of traffic count, click-through rate, and Web metrics. There are multiple problems when an advertiser gives inordinate focus to them. The first is that these metrics are often inaccurate and unreliable. Much of this data collection relies upon cookies. Studies have shown that a high percentage of users delete or block cookies. That not only limits what you're counting, but also distorts the results.

There is a growing body of evidence that the population of clickers is not exactly the same as the population of buyers. Some report that 80 percent of click-throughs come from just 10 percent of the visitors. And there is little to confirm that these clickers are buyers. Indeed, there is reason to believe that those who view an ad but do not click drive the majority of sales.

On top of all that, there is another powerful reality. Clicks don't measure cumulative impact. And that brings us to another key attribute of an effective advertisement: the concept of repeat exposure, which greatly enhances advertising effectiveness. Metrics that show a count of returning, nameless visitors are one thing. But an auditable list of the addresses of regular recipients is something better.

Getting Back on Track

So what do you do when you have a prospective advertiser who is asking all the wrong questions? What do you do if you've got someone on the line who seems intent on making a decision based on traffic count, click-through rate, and Web metrics?

Given that situation, you're probably better off making your presentation based on the answers the advertiser is looking for. But that may not lead to a good, long-term relationship between you and the advertiser. Over time, the advertiser may discover that this advertising is producing an insufficient sales result. Then, your publication may be dropped. Or a competitor may come along offering a better alternative to the nonperforming advertising that the advertiser has been doing with you. In either case, you lose out.

A better strategy would be to consider your sale as a foot in the door. The advertiser may have been bent on ineffectual advertising methods. But after taking the initial order, you should immediately start trying to educate the advertiser. Encourage him to take a longer view of things. Encourage experimentatal alternatives that take advantage of size and repeat exposure. Encourage reliance upon the impact of advertising on long-term sales trajectories, instead of on short-term and potentially unreliable metrics.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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