Kirk Caraway is a guest author. To submit a guest post, click here.
Online news has come a long way since the days when posting a story meant hand-coding HTML pages. Unfortunately, advertising — as it applies to local news sites — hasn’t come nearly as far.
In those early days, our challenge was to convert the ads from the printed newspaper to work on the Web. Classified ads were easy — so easy that eventually a guy named Craig took that business away while we were busy trying to find ways to make people pay for those ads. But display ads were a problem. Eventually, they evolved into banner ads, and we developed systems to serve up those ads in real time, rotating them in pre-configured spaces on each page.
Banner ads worked pretty well at first. I remember one banner ad we ran that had a click-through rate of 19%. But that didn’t last. As banners became ubiquitous on the Web and inventory soared, their effectiveness and value plummeted. Getting a clickthrough rate above 1% would be considered wildly successful these days.
Sites like the Huffington Post that reach much larger markets and have relationships with national advertisers focused on brand building are still making banner ads work. But if your market is a town of 50,000, what then? What comes after the banner?
There are three parties in every advertising transaction: the advertiser, the publisher and the reader. If you can create something the helps all three, then maybe you have a winner.
How do you help local advertisers? How about finding a way to let them easily change their ads in real time so they can better communicate with customers? That’s hard to do when their messages are locked up in banner images. Local businesses are also catching on to the value of social media. What if you create an ad type that works with their social media efforts, so they can effectively push their message across multiple platforms in one step?
Next there are readers, who are tired of seeing the same old banner ads over and over. How about giving them something that has up-to-date information about local businesses, telling them about specials or events they might be interested in?
For publishers, having an ad system that is efficient and easy to manage is very desirable. What if you had a system that the advertiser could easily place an ad, pay for it, and change it whenever they want? Another plus would be a way to include more paying ads on a page without diluting the value to the advertiser.
This led me to an experiment I am conducting on my local site, CarsonNow.org, where I created an advertising system that uses Twitter to supply quick updates to ads. It takes the advertiser’s latest tweet and pairs it with a logo image, and displays it like a banner ad. The logo supplies the branding power, while the text of the tweet carries the advertising message.
We stack these ads one on top of the other, and sort them to show the latest tweets on top. This gives advertisers an incentive to tweet more often, to get better exposure for their businesses. At the same time, these ads would retain most of their value even if 20 were stacked up on a page, because it’s the advertiser who controls the positioning.
Using Twitter in this way gives the advertiser a very simple way to change advertising messages. All it takes is 140 characters, and it can be accomplished from a mobile phone. That makes it accessible to almost anyone, from your town’s largest auto dealer to the coffee shop down the street. For those businesses that prefer to use Facebook pages, those can be set up to automatically post new updates to Twitter, which are then passed to the advertiser’s ad. That means that one quick post can update all three platforms in a matter of minutes.
While this system uses Twitter, it’s only one possible conduit for moving information from the advertiser to the ad unit. A future version of this system would allow advertisers to have posts to Facebook or other publishing platforms go directly to their ads, bypassing Twitter if that is their desire.
As local businesses update their ads more and more to rise to the top of the ad stack, readers get the kind of up-to-date information they like, instead of the same old banner ads. They can also choose to follow businesses through links to their Twitter accounts and/or Facebook pages.
Those of us involved with local news sites work very hard to bring our readers the most up-to-date information about our communities. Our readers expect to find the latest news. With this new ad system, we hope to also condition them to look to us for the latest information about local businesses as well. That helps us, and adds value to these ads.
It’s too soon to tell if this experimental ad type will catch on, but so far the response has been positive. The system will soon launch on a second site, SouthTahoeNow.com, where we will see how it does in a more tourism-centric market.
Kirk Caraway is founder/publisher of CarsonNow.org, and mother site of the Nowtown Network that includes SouthTahoeNow.com. He grew up in the newspaper business, and is an award-winning writer and editor. He started building and managing local news websites in 1994, and has witnessed first hand the evolution of local online news. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.