Apr 27, 2006
SUMMARY: Community Web sites featuring user-generated content have become hot commodities, as evidenced by the press around MySpace.com recently. But cashing in on community isn't easy.Despite the buzz factor, many publishers running community sites still go to sleep asking themselves, how can I convince more sponsors to come on board?Read on for a look at how one community site, packed with blogs, wikis and discussion groups, has revamped its ad offerings to thrill. || |
Community makes ITtoolbox run. Unlike online media that use editors to deliver advice about IT issues, ITtoolbox visitors create the majority of site’s content themselves -- sharing info with each other via a network of discussion groups, blogs and a wiki.
However much users have adored community since the Web began (consider the very first usenet groups), online advertisers have historically been less than interested in sponsoring user-generated content. “Until 2004, there was a lack of understanding of the community model,” says ITtoolbox CEO Dan Morrison. “Community was almost a four-letter word to some ad buyers.”
This ingrained attitude began to thaw about 18 months ago. Sites like Wikipedia.com and bloggers who broke big news stories began to convince media buyers that community-run sites could deliver truly valuable, respectable content that one's brand might not be ashamed to be associated with. “Until this time, community didn’t seem to have professional value,” Morrison notes.
The timing seemed ideal for ITtoolbox.com to take its advertising revenue to an entirely new level. But to do it, the company would have to retool itself to meet the desires of 2006's business-to-business online advertisers.
When ITtoolbox first launched in late 1998, most b-to-b marketers had been trained by years of offline media buys to spend a flat sum for their campaign based on reach, ad size and media brand. In other words, CPM space ads in print magazines bought by the month, CPM list rentals bought by the campaign or trade show booths bought by the show.
Now that ITtoolbox was at last being taken seriously as a media brand, b-to-b marketers largely had moved away from their past media buying patterns due to three factors:
#1. In reaction to the 2001 slump, an entire generation of b-to-b marketers learned to focus 100% on immediate lead generation.
#2. By 2004, this generation had also learned tough lessons about lead quality. Their sales team taught them it wasn't enough to fill the funnel with names, they had to be highly qualified names.
#3. By 2005, 59% of business technology marketers were spending significant portions of their total (online plus offline) marketing budget on paid search advertising, which is sold by the click (on a PPC basis.) And a MarketingSherpa survey of 826 IT marketers in June 2005 revealed PPC search ads were the number one tactic these marketers planned to increase their budgets for 2006.
Now, ITtoolbox had to retool its advertising programs to appeal to the "Google Generation" of lead-gen obsessed business technology media buyers. Morrison's team used three steps to accomplish this.
Step 1: Promote Performance-based Ad Buys
Until 2005, ITtoolbox.com sold ads much like its editorially-staffed rivals, offering CPM-based campaigns, with some lead generation. The site's old media kit touted its audience’s attractive demographics. However, that wasn't enough to move the dial. “Our customers wanted guaranteed-performance campaigns,” Morrison says.
So, the team revamped the media kit to focus more PPC campaigns, which guaranteed a number of leads or clicks.
Plus, the team decided their top competitive stance would be lead quality. “Build an internal culture of quantifiable performance,” Morrison advises. How? There’s no industry-standard way to measure which site’s leads are the best, though. So he has an internal client services team work with customers to study how ITtoolbox’s leads stack up to competitors’ leads. Begun in 2005, these studies began as an informal survey and morphed into a detailed one.
Step 2: Develop a More Granular Ad-Matching System
Paid search marketing has taught today's marketers not only to prefer paying by performance but also to value a tightly targeted media buy that might be seen by only a handful of "perfect" prospects over broad-reach campaigns.
ITtoolbox revamped its internal ad serving systems to tap into its most important attribute for advertisers -- the ability to connect them with IT professionals at a granular level based on the content they were viewing. The company developed and implemented a proprietary contextual-matching system for its discussion groups, blogs and wiki section.
The system was highly automated, because matching the average 1500 pieces of content created on the site daily with just the right ad would be impossible by hand.
Now, as visitors communicate within an email discussion group, for example, the matching system scans the content seeking matches for advertiser messages. Visitors discussing spyware, let’s say, might be presented with whitepapers relating to spyware. If the whitepaper is online, the reader must share lead generation information to get it.
Step 3: Boost Traffic to Community Content
When you're serving ads on an extremely granular level, and you're being paid by performance, you need as much traffic as possible.
ITtoolbox's content team made a strategic decision to try to boost traffic by focusing the site and email offerings even more on its most unique content -- the community-generated materials. In the past, the site had bought aggregated and syndicated editorial content in order to run articles alongside the community content. But in 2005, they cut back considerably on articles, in favor of upping community content.
Then, the site was redesigned to stress the discussion groups, putting them at the top of the site’s navigation area. The discussion groups also got an infrastructure makeover -- to increase the speed with which messages got published and improve the ease of use for people typing in and working with email messages.
At the same time, the content team rededicated their focus on keeping the quality high (something that has been a major headache for other media companies testing user-generated content).
The team enforces different user policies and moderation processes for each of the three major types of community -- discussion groups, blogs and wikis.
As Morrison explains, you don’t want to turn off discussion group participants with rules that are too tight, yet you need to moderate to keep to a corporate tone. Wikis may not work unless you moderate after the fact. Blogs probably lie somewhere in the middle. Trusted blog writers don’t need immediate moderation but blog postings may.
ITtoolbox is hoping for $7 to $9 million in revenue for 2006, 60% higher than actual revenue results in 2005.
So far they appear to be on track. Thanks to a new focus on performance-driven ad offerings, a proprietary contextual-matching system for targeting ads, and site design tweaks, ITtoolbox’s Q1 2006 ad revenue has swelled 32% compared to Q1 2005. Bookings for Q1 2006 hopped 60% compared to Q1 2005.
Performance-driven campaigns, where ITtoolbox guarantees advertisers a number of leads or a number of clicks, have now become almost half of the company’s ad inventory. In Q4 2004, 23% of the campaigns were performance-driven. As of Q1 2006, that figure has risen to more than 45%.
The new matching system is proving itself. Among IT Toolbox.com’s lead-generation campaigns in Q4 2004, 5163 leads were generated. In Q1 2006, 32,630 leads were generated.
Traffic continues to rise. Thanks in part to the renewed focus on community content and the redesign, the site’s number of unique visitors multiplied from 14.8 million in 2004 to 17.4 million in 2005. Plus, within the ITtoolbox blogs, unique visitors soared from 145,500 in Q1 2005 to 572,500 in Q1 2006 -- a 293% hop.
In discussion groups, readers posted about 850 messages per day in late 2005; that rose to average of 1200-1400 messages per day in Q1 2006. Approximately 40 million emails per month now travel through the discussion groups
Last but not least, the site’s wiki section, launched in July 2005, became one of the top 10 sites (out of 30 available to readers) by January 2006.
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