As for the advertisers, the structure tends to works better for local businesses than it would for national ones. The Richmond Ad Network has had some national advertisers, like American Apparel, for instance (though Catrow says they had to specify ‘no weirdness,’ because their ads are often very weird). But in general, Catrow and Pharr agree, “You get more bang for your buck if you’re a local advertiser.”
Ben Ilfeld, COO of the Sacramento Press, realized when other local sites started asking for help from the Press’s sales staff that an ad network could be mutually beneficial to everyone, and the Sacramento Local Online Ad Network (SLOAN) was born. SLOAN launched with twelve news sites and has since grown to fifty. Four sales people work full time selling ads for the network. Like Eubank, the centralized staff does all the cold calling, processes all the invoices, keeps track of payments, and schedules all the ads, so the site owners don’t have to.
Just as the site owners don’t have the time or the necessary experience to devote to sales calls, the advertisers don’t have the time or the patience to strike fifty different deals with fifty different sites, either. The advertisers had money to spend, and the desire to reach out to smaller audiences, but it had to be easy. “They needed one point of contact, one set of creative, and one rigorously audited report,” Ilfeld says.
Likewise, it had to be easy for the site owners to sign up with the network. And, more importantly, it had to be free. “One key part of this is, there’s no buy-in,” says Ilfeld. “You can be part of the network for free, and you can leave at any time. It’s just got to be as easy as Google Ad Sense, or even easier. It has to be simple, and it has to be free. Because nobody has money to start with, that’s the whole point.”
Currently, the four salespeople working full time on network sales get paid directly from the ad commissions, and the site owners split what remains, just as the Richmond sites do. Ilfeld and the other SLOAN management team don’t get profit from the ad sales per se, but they use the connections to those clients to try to sell them other marketing services event promotion, street team marketing, and web development.
Like the Richmond Ad Network, SLOAN has already seen results. For instance, the biggest site in the network, Sacramento Magazine, still sells its own ads for its print version, but had not previously sold ads specifically for its website other than signing up for Google Ad Sense. Ilfeld says that Google probably gave them about $12 a month, whereas the first month they were a part of SLOAN, they collected at least ten times that.
“The way I put it to people is, if you’re a small- or medium-sized publisher, we’re probably not going to make your house payment, but we’ll probably make your car payment,” says Ilfeld. “That could be enough money to hire a part-time ad sales person yourself. So you can kind of double down, and use the money that’s coming out of the ad network to sell more premium ads.”
So the bigger question is, could this work on a bigger scale? What about a national ad network? Jason Pramas, editor and publisher of local news site Open Media Boston, is just as dissatisfied with existing options for ad networks as the Richmond and Sacramento guys were. (“We tried [Rubicon], but when they started throwing up porn on our site we had to stop; that’s not what we’re about,” says Pramas.) Google Ad Sense and other by-the-click systems didn’t work for him, either, because of the low rate of return. He, too, tried to hire sales staff, but since he didn’t have any money to pay them, he couldn’t attract very experienced or motivated job candidates.
So, Pramas says, it’s occurred to him that like-minded and similarly-sized sites across the country could join together into a national ad network—like the Richmond or Sacramento networks, but on a larger scale. “We could bundle the equivalent of circulation,” he says, and the more sites involved, the more they could charge for the ads they sold.
When asked for advice about starting up an ad network, Catrow, Pharr and Ilfeld all agreed that it’s essential to get someone (or several people) with good experience, working full-time. And that takes a little start-up money, which, luckily, both the Richmond and Sacramento teams had because of side business ventures in design and marketing.