When Washington, D.C. local news site TBD.com launched in August, it got a fair amount of attention for the blog network with which it shares content and, potentially, advertising. When it launched, the TBD network had about 120 blogs participating; it’s now up to 193. But a handful of communities across the country are experimenting with blog networks on a smaller scale, cities like Sacramento, California and Richmond, Virginia. The successful networks share a few key ingredients: money to invest up front in a full-time sales staff, loyal and local advertisers, and strict ad design standards.
The Richmond Ad Network formed organically over the course of a few years, but has recently delivered some real results in the past few months since it hired a full-time ad salesperson. The network’s roots go back to 2005 and 2006, when Scott Pharr and Ross Catrow launched RVA Blogs, an aggregator of about a hundred local blogs in Richmond. At that time, one of the most popular local sites was Church Hill People’s News, a neighborhood news site edited part-time by sixth-grade teacher John Murden. Murden put out a call to other independent journalists who might want to start their own sites in other Richmond neighborhoods, and made his site’s code base available to anyone who wanted it. Pharr and Catrow, seeing the resulting expansion of news sites, then decided to build a spinoff to RVA Blogs in 2008, called RVA News. (The news site has since eclipsed the blog site in traffic, and has begun to add original content from freelancers as well.)
Meanwhile, the individual sites were experimenting with selling ads in various ad hoc ways. Catrow says some of the sites were selling their own individual banner ads, “but not very successfully. And they were selling them at such a ridiculously low rate, it was so cheap that it didn’t even feel worth the time.” Site publishers didn’t have the time or energy to be sales people as well as journalists and editors, nor did they necessarily have the experience and skill necessary to close valuable deals with advertisers.
“Usually the two personalities aren’t the same,” says Catrow. “A journalist-publisher person is not an ad person, except in rare situations. Sales is a job that really requires you to be a ‘sales person.’ And if you’re not a sales person, you’re going to be bad at it.”
The first thing site owners usually try is Google Ad Sense. But for sites just starting out without a lot of readers, Ad Sense will usually only bring in pennies. For the Richmond sites, Catrow says, the automated ad programs turned out to be either extremely low-return, or ugly, or both. “You can sign up for ad systems, but you’ll get random things like ‘Bad Teeth?’ or ‘Got a Fat Stomach?’” says Catrow. “Those things just devalue your product.”
For all of these reasons, Pharr and Catrow decided to hire a full time ad sales person. They were able to pay a salary for the first six months with the profits from another business venture in design and marketing, after which the salesperson would work on commission. Lauren Eubank started working for the Richmond Ad Network last year, and after a few months, she was already making enough to pay herself from ad commissions alone.
Eubank sells one main product, a banner ad that appears on all fourteen sites in the network: twelve independent sites, plus the two blog and news aggregators. She takes her commission from that, and then whatever is left over is divided up among the site owners in proportion to their site traffic each month. When she sells smaller ad buys, to appear only on single sites, the owners of those sites get all the profit. Catrow says all of the sites in the network are making at least “a little bit of money, and some are making $500 a month.” Murden, whose site still gets the most hits, told Bill Densmore in a recent interview that he was already making up to $1000 a month from ads.
Because of the sites’ previous “bad teeth” experiences, Catrow and Pharr say it is important that they keep their design standards high. They only accept static banner ads, simple squares and rectangles, and won’t allow any ads with Flash or animation, even though those would bring in more profit. “That’s definitely a challenge, because it would be easier to sell Flash ads,” says Catrow. “But we’re just not going to do it.” Pharr adds that the animated ads that fly across the screen or peel down “annoy us too, so why would we want to annoy our readers? We want people to click on the ad because it’s relevant to them.”