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.
“What people need isn’t necessarily the ‘network’ itself; what they need is a great salesperson,” says Ilfeld. “So if you start up a network and you don’t really have the money for investing in a great salesperson, it’s destined to fail.”
Catrow and Pharr do not agree, however, that a national ad network could gain much traction. Catrow says that the biggest factor for success in the Richmond Ad Network is the fact that they have someone on the ground working closely in the community, especially in a market like theirs. “You have to have someone who can call a store a hundred times, go over there and meet with them, get turned down seventy times, and then keep meeting with them, and see them at parties . Richmond is such a small town that you see the same people everywhere, and you never stop working,” he says. “It would be easier for us to sell to the same client than a national ad group would, because we can always go down the street and hang out with them.”
Pramas says he has been talking to Ilfeld and a few other community site owners he met at a conference this summer about the possibility of striking a deal with them to attract advertisers together. Ilfeld seems to think that a local advertising network is best, but that several regional groups could scale the model, maybe building “a network of networks.” Though he hasn’t announced it yet, Ilfeld has his sights set on the Bay Area as the next place to expand the SLOAN model. If advertisers want to reach fifty local sites in Sacramento, it makes sense that, depending on the advertisers, they might want the option of reaching another few dozen in Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco.
The important thing, though, is that this expansion has to come from the publishers wanting to get involved and join together into a group with common goals. As Ilfeld says, you can’t impose a business alliance from the outside: “It has to be a little more organic.”