I’ve been speaking to - and reading about - a lot of want-to-be news entrepreneurs lately. They believe that they have sound strategies. Most of them intend to be ad supported (smart), but few of them have actually spoken to the people who are (supposedly) going to be paying the bills (dumb).
That’s not a strategy, it’s a stragedy.
Talk to your potential advertisers. You have to. And do it early in the process. I guarantee that their input will change some of your key strategies.
Ten simple questions are all you need.
Question 1: How’s business?
Are they reasonably successful or just getting by? Are they new and eager or older and established? Is their industry facing new realities and big changes or are things pretty much the same as they ever were? Are there cheaper, better, faster alternatives causing disruption? Are they keeping up with changes in customer tastes and values? Is their customer-base growing or shrinking?
These questions will help you determine if this is a customer or even an industry you want to target as potential advertisers.
For example, you may find out that restaurants tend to make terrible customers. They have little money, pay bills late (if at all) are extremely high maintenance (constant changes to their ads for menus, entertainment, etc) and go out of business with alarming frequency.
MedSpas however, may turn out to be much more attractive customers (no pun intended). They are in a growing industry with a growing, up-market customer base. And, their industry is constantly innovating and creating new products and services.
Question 2: Who are your customers?
Are they targeting the same people as you? If no, you have a problem. If yes, dig deeper. They are likely to know much more about your audience than you do. And understanding your target users will help you build a better site. Every time.
Smaller advertisers are likely to have a more intimate knowledge of their target customer based on personal interaction. Larger advertisers will have spent big bucks on research that they may be willing to share.
A lunch with a Kia Motors marketing exec in which he explained the intricacies of the “new car purchase decision-making funnel” changed the entire structure of the automotive website I was creating (and every website I built after).
Question 3: Who are your competitors?
Question 3: Who are your competitors?
Your advertisers’ competitors should be your prime sales targets. If one of them is on your site, the others will be compelled to be there too. Your site will become a marketplace.
You will get a lot of obvious answers, but some might surprise you.
An Indian restaurant may be more concerned about the gay-friendly pub down the road than other curry joints. A Lazik surgeon may be worried about the cosmetic dentist down the hall because the vain may only have so much money to spend this year.
In an eye-opening meeting with marketing execs at a large hardware chain, I discovered that they wanted to own the “outdoor living” category in the Summer and the “hockey equipment” category in the Winter. They had two completely different competitive sets depending on the time of year. This gave birth to a sales strategy I never would have come up with on my own.
Question 4: What are your marketing objectives this year?
Knowing this will help you determine what kind of ad products to offer on your site.
Are they hoping to build brand awareness? You’ll need attention getting products like the OPA specialty positions, tool sponsorships, category ownership, integrated promotions, rich media, etc.
Are they expanding to new marketplaces? Maybe you need to offer geo-targeting and online flyers to promote grand openings.
Are they looking to generate leads or drive revenue? You’ll need text links, listings pages and finders, online coupons and a damn good reporting system that can prove you’re driving ROI.
Question 5: What is the size of your advertising budget and where are you advertising now?
If you are targeting advertisers with tiny budgets, you will need low cost, high volume advertising products in order to become profitable. Ads will need to be low maintenance and easy to sell, perhaps even self-serve. They will most likely be in listing form. Your site will need to be designed so that users can easily find advertisers listing pages.
Larger ad budgets require a more sophisticated sales rep and group of ad products.
If your advertisers are buying many other sites, you will need to ensure that your site is demonstrably different and better at meeting advertising objectives than your competitors.
If your advertisers are currently spending most of their budget offline, you have a big opportunity to move budgets. But, you will likely need to teach them the basics of online and keep ad products simple.
Question 6: Which elements of your advertising mix are working/not working and why?
This is where you learn what your advertisers will expect of you.
Sometimes they can’t tell you why they advertise where they do. It’s based largely on gut reactions and relationships. If the client is large enough, get your most charming sales rep over there and maybe invest in some basketball tickets or a round of golf.
If the advertiser has a very good understanding of what’s working and what’s not, they are probably quite data driven. They will be very ROI focused and you will need to deliver to stay on their buy. Carefully watch the sites that are currently working for them. What are those sites doing right? Also pay close attention to how that customer’s ads are trafficked and optimized.
Question 7: How do you want to be serviced?
How frequently will they want to see a sales rep? Will they need creative services? How often will they want to change their ads? In the case of agencies, do they want a single point of contact for the whole agency or do they want you to structure your reps by category (i.e. one who specializes in automotive, another in travel, another in large retail)?
It’s important to know these things while still in the business planning stage because high maintenance clients can cause unexpected costs for start-ups.
Question 8. Here’s what I have in mind for a site. Does this appeal? Why or why not?
This can be a bit tricky. This is the first time your potential advertisers will hear about your site. It’s imperative that you present it well. Rehearse what you’re going to say. Don’t be too selly, but make sure you get across what is truly new, different and exciting about your project.
Then listen without being defensive and write everything down.
Question 9: What would you do if you were me?
I once asked a marketer at a major retailer this question when I was developing a strategy for building vertical websites. I wanted to know which verticals were likely to be successful. He told me to focus on “major lifecycle moments”. The times in our lives when we are likely to not only spend a lot of money, but to spend a lot of time researching those purchase decisions. Times like buying a house, becoming a parent or dealing with health issues.
It was good advice. Later that week two other major retailer marketers repeated it. Turns out that lifecycle moments are where retailers focus their marketing dollars.
Question 10: What would be the dumbest thing I could do in your eyes?
By far my favourite question. Advertisers LOVE answering it for you. Just ask them. You’ll see.
A few more helpful tips:
Show up. You’ll get much richer information and build a stronger relationship if you interview the advertisers individually, at their places of business then if you try to gather a bunch of them in a room for a couple of hours.
Do your homework. Do a little research on the advertiser you’re interviewing and their industry. It shows respect and saves time during the actual interview, as they won’t need to explain as much to you.
Follow up. When you launch, send your interviewees a personalized thank you including notes on how you addressed their specific needs and suggestions.
Do it again. Objectives, budgets, environment and customers all change. Repeating the interview every 12 to 18 month is a great way to stay connected. And, advertisers will think that you are particularly on the ball.
In the beginning, you won’t be able to implement all the recommendations and strategies that arise from these interviews. But, you will start off on a much better footing and be in a position to build a long-term product road map.
Now get out there. What are you so afraid of?