Affordable Banner Ads – How Much You Should Spend to Get the Best Results

As a marketing expert, I am often asked to assess new methods of advertising for my clients. One recent request came from a car accessory company who has a very successful e-commerce website as well as an Amazon store, both of which I created, manage and maintain. By reviewing daily reports on Google Analytics, I am fully apprised of how many visitors arrive at his website, where they come from, what pages they view and how long they spend, among many other parameters. Through our ShopSite shopping cart, we also have extensive reports about which products sell best.

One of the most valuable pieces of information among all this data is the source of referral. This client is extremely fortunate to have developed a very loyal following among previous customers who liberally discuss their interests, purchases and post photos of their prized custom-enhanced cars on a number of popular, special-interest automobile forums on the Internet. Each time my client is recommended, his URL address for his website is posted within the discussion thread which in turn gets repeated whenever anyone comments or asks further questions on the subject. As a result of this, his website has hundreds of linkbacks which has driven his search rankings up to the tops of any relevant Google searches. We can only count our blessings. Of course, his impeccable business practices, unique products and excellent customer service have given his company an enviable reputation for reliability which he works hard to reinforce on a daily basis.

In an effort to show gratitude to these forums and their participants, he has suggested many times that we look into costs for banner advertising, which is a certain format of advertising used on websites with a variety of payment options to choose from. And, dutifully, I have requested media kits and cost information from a number of forums only to be stymied by the intimidating prospect of buying ads by the number of impressions as opposed to some more traditional mode of measurement. Having been in this business for over 35 years, we get a little flummoxed by common claims of exorbitant numbers of visitors per day which seem somewhat far-fetched, to say the least. However, with recently established auditing procedures set up by an organization called The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), buying banner advertising by number of impressions is now more comparable to buying print advertising by audited circulation figures, as an example. This is not to say that every Internet banner advertising claim is audited but at least there are guidelines and standards with which to correspond.

Despite our reservations, the need and desire to advertise to such an appropriately targeted market remains, so we’ve finally bitten the bullet. Having visited the site of a particular automobile forum of interest, one which boasts 170,000 unique visits (note: “visits” not “visitors”) per month, I was immediately attracted to banner ads which appear prominently in key spots on the page. I quickly learned that those ads are placed by Google who only entertains advertising budgets of immense proportion. I know this is true, having been left in limbo waiting for Google sales reps to give me the courtesy of answering my picayune cost questions, which so far has proven futile. However, in repeated efforts to learn more from the endless documents Google has available on every possible facet of this subject, “image” (banner) advertising through Google can be on a “cost-per-click” basis, the cost of which is determined by bids submitted by competitive participants within a given industry, or on a “cost-per-thousand” (cpm) basis based on number of impressions the ad receives and a predetermined budget you arrange with Google. Your ad is then placed on a particular website or group of websites you specify, or is circulated among Google’s choice of appropriate websites based on keywords you have selected. Unless you have a sizable budget to invest in this program, Google does not encourage your participation.

If you haven’t heard of “affiliate marketing, it is appropriate to discuss here. It is the popular relationship between a website with ample traffic, an online merchant who wants to place a banner ad to draw interest to his product, service or website, and sometimes a third-party Internet ad placement service who acts as a liaison between suitable high-traffic websites and appropriately related banner advertisers. Google itself is an affiliate marketing service as described above, as are Yahoo and countless others all over the Internet. Besides arrangements for pay-per-click, there are also pay-per-sale and pay-per-lead setups, all of which require payment of a commission by the banner advertiser to the affiliate at an agreed, predetermined rate. This could be the equivalent of pennies or dollars, depending on the relationship and contract. And it is based on the age-old tradition of rewarding anyone who contributes to your sales by fruitfully promoting your product or service. If you think paying by ad impression is worrisome, paying by click is even more terrifying when you read about cases where advertisers rack up thousands of dollars worth of commissions due because someone from a competitive business targets your ad with a clicking scam designed to put you out of business with hundreds of meaningless clicks! While these are the exceptions, it is enough to undermine your courage.

Alternatives are available, however. It is possible to bypass Google and other affiliate marketers by placing ads directly on a website you choose for merits you openly recognize, without any strings attached for profit-sharing. In our case, we appealed to the automobile forum’s marketing department which offered very reasonable banner advertising rates through a professional, attentive and eager sales rep who was happy to guide us through the entire process, including late at night and on the weekend!

First we decided on a large banner size of 728 x 90 pixels, also known as a “leaderboard,” which is a horizontal unit about the size of the window on a window envelope. As long as we kept the banner ad file size to 20k, we were allowed to submit either a static ad or an animated Flash ad. But we were warned that it is quite difficult to get Flash ads down to 20k and would be charged extra for a size that exceeded 20k.

The client agreed that we should try to make the ad a Flash version because it gave us the option of showing more than one product and delivering more than one message, all while attracting attention with the ad’s movement. After working on the ad’s construction, the smallest I could get the size down to was 25k. But, as always, even after 35 years, I learned a couple of tricks in the process thanks to Google searches which provided some tips on file reduction by some knowledgeable people who are unbelievably generous with their free information.

What contributes to oversize in a Flash SWF file are a number of elements including size and type of Photoshop images used, failure to convert every layer’s components to symbols and the number of frames used in the ad (or length of time the file needs to complete its action.) By addressing all of these parameters, I finally got the file down to 20k and, as a result, we were charged the flat fee of $130 per 50,000 impressions for a contract total of 300,000 impressions over a 3-month term, or $780. That’s less than a penny per impression. Certainly that is an affordable rate to test the market both for ad effectiveness and market reception compared to the need for a $20,000 minimum budget with Google.

A day or two after the ad had been placed and started running in rotation, taking its turn appearing in the very same ideal spots as the Google ads I had seen, the ad rep contacted me to say that when the ad is clicked on, our website opens in the very same window the ad occupies, the skinny 728×90 pixel space, which obviously is not what we had intended! All of our tests had shown the website opening in a new full-size window. Luckily, the ad rep said if I can fix the ad to open a new window when clicked upon to accommodate the large website page, he would restart the contract at no additional cost. (Talk about customer service! What a rare, exceptional human being!)

Self-taught at everything I do, I needed to solve this new challenge with an appropriate script within the Flash file to open a new window when the ad was clicked upon. Although I thought I’d have to specify the size of the window needed, I discovered through trial and error that the new window which opens is entirely dependent on the size of the window of the users’ browser, any size of which would be acceptable in this instance, since it would surely exceed the relatively “tiny” size of our banner ad.

Upon submitting the new file, the ad rep confirmed that the problem was solved. A new large window opened when the ad was clicked upon displaying our website in all its glory, and the contract was restarted from zero.

What prompted us to use this particular forum for our banner advertising test was its focus on a model of vehicle which is least popular in our product sales history. We attribute this phenomenon to a supposition that this model of car attracts a younger market who may not be as affluent as older drivers who buy lots of our products for vehicles that appeal to a more mature taste. But our choice of product advertised is one that appeals to every market worldwide because it is so desperately needed by drivers of the make of car in which we specialize, regardless of model. This is crucial to accurate measurement of the banner ad’s effectiveness.

While we are still grappling with a number of variables which can affect banner ad visibility, such as how often it appears to the right audience at the right time, something which is common to all other types of advertising as well, we can see through Google Analytics at this early stage of review that a respectable number of website visitors are coming directly to the page to which the ad is linked. It is not common for visitors to know the exact address of that special page thereby making it their “landing” page. With this knowledge, we can safely assume that those visits are a result of the banner ad. Otherwise, Google Analytics tells us the name of the source of referral, which could be Google, Yahoo, a specific automobile forum URL or any number of other possible referring sites. In the case of the banner ad, the referral is called “direct,” meaning that the user’s click brought him to a specific address without depending on the use of a keyword or search term.

Still, there are other concerns which control the effectiveness of a banner ad. Just as technology was developed to rid the TV viewer of the necessity to sit through annoying commercials which interrupt programming, there is similar technology which blocks banner ads from a website visitor’s experience. Combine that with the limitations surrounding reception of Flash animation on certain mobile devices and you begin to understand the many constraints which affect banner advertising success.

As with any advertising or marketing efforts, it is fair to say that our expectations about banner ad effectiveness are hopeful for an actual return on investment in the form of increased sales, but at the same time, realistic if the only benefit is one of corporate exposure, professional image and product awareness. In time, all promotional efforts contribute to a cumulative rate of success. As businesses, this is something we accept as going with the territory. And as a final rationalization, we take solace in the adage “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

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