June 16, 2005
Is RSS advertising -- placing ads in third party RSS feeds -- the next hot media buy? Although intrigued, mainstream advertisers are for the most part staying away from RSS ads. The problem (just as with any emerging media buy) is reach. Tests aren't worth the work unless you have a significant population to roll your campaign out to if the test wins. However, now that Google's started putting AdSense ads into RSS feeds, and major news sites such as USAToday.com and NYTimes.com are seeing double-digit monthly leaps in RSS-usership, we bet reach won't be a problem by 2006. Interested? Check out our exclusive behind-the-scenes look at how Citrix's GoToMeeting just tested RSS and Podcasting ads.
CHALLENGE Every spring the marketers at Citrix Systems Inc are required to come up with one new advertising idea to test intensively. (Don't you wish you worked for such a cool company?)
Last year it was radio (link to Case Study below). This spring, marketers for Citrix's GoToMeeting service decided, why not RSS ads? "RSS networks, podcasting, bloggers, these new channels all tie in together, and seem to be growing pretty rapidly," says Senior Marketing Manager Cailin Pitcher.
Slapping up some ads onto RSS ad networks isn't that hard anymore (links to four networks below). The challenge comes in making them pay off. Every Citrix experiment is dictated by CPA -- cost per new customer acquisition.
The marketing team had to prove RSS ads could produce new customers at a cost just as low as already proven media such as email, search, and radio. Could they?
CAMPAIGN The team launched tests in March across a variety of RSS ad networks (most of which also repped ads in blogs).
Step #1. Media buying for RSS
Just as with any other media, list selection is the number one most significant factor for success. RSS ads can work or fail completely based on which lists you choose to run them on. The team naturally tested a variety of networks and niche buys within networks.
Their target market was small business leaders who were early-adopters in the technology community -- a good match for today's RSS reading community (although much like the early Web, it's rapidly growing to include broader demographics).
RSS ads are generally sold on a CPC basis (although we've heard some networks toss them in gratis as a test cell with a CPM blog ad buy). The CPC -- cost per click -- may range from fifty cents to one dollar.
Because the number of feeds accepting ads is relatively limited now, and some smaller publishers only publish one content story every day or every week, media buys must watch frequency like a hawk. If your ad shows up on the same feed too often, to the recipient it might feel akin to getting too many pop-ups from a Web site.
Pitcher worked with the ad networks to tweak frequency. She also rotated creative more than she would with other forms of online advertising.
Step #2. Creative for RSS (link to samples below)
While you can put graphics and longer copy into RSS feeds, you can't be sure all readers will receive them properly. (For example, some show text only.) Also, the early adopter demographic online is well-known for its hearty dislike of anything that smacks too much of blatant commercialism.
With these two factors in mind, Pitcher had the creative team produce ads that were based on best-performing ads in other media, but not too overtly promotional or long. The average ad was just 40-50 words of text with a simple headline that was hotlinked to a landing page. (Link below to creative samples.)
Because many RSS feeds taking ads currently are published by individual bloggers versus major media, Pitcher decided to test more personal-sounding ads to match this environment. For example, one ad featured a personal testimonial from well-known tech guru Chris Pirillo.
Step #3. Integrated RSS + blog campaigns
Some RSS feeds contain the full body of a blog entry or article online, while others are just summaries with a hotlink to read more on the Web.
In the case of the latter, Pitcher explored options to run matching ads on those Web sites as an integrated campaign. It's a one-two punch; you see the ad in the feed and then you click through and see the same copy on the site.
Step #4. Podcasting sponsorship experiment
Thousands of bloggers have started podcasting in the past nine months -- producing their own audio shows available for free download to iPods. (Link to basic info about the podcasting phenomenon below.)
Pitcher decided to take campaign integration one step further by testing sponsoring, among others, The Chris Pirillo Show. The live show currently has more than 8,000 listeners, with hundreds more listening to archived editions. The cost was $10,000 for a one-month, four-show sponsorship.
Since, just like blogs, podcasts have a strongly individual and even do-it-yourself content flair, handing over canned audio ads was not a creative option that would work well with the media. Pitcher also felt she couldn't give the podcaster a specific script because that might sound too promotional.
"It's not direct advertising; we decided to look more like product placement." In the case of The Chris Pirillo Show, GoToMeeting set up a test account for listeners to play around with, and asked Chris to mention it during the show.
In addition, any listener who wanted their own trial could get a 30-day trial (twice the normal length of GoToMeeting's typical offers) if they went to a special landing page online.
Step #5. Tracking response based on common metrics
As the campaign proceeded, Pitcher spreadsheeted results, breaking down various media pricing (CPC, CPM) into one common number -- CPA. Her definition of "acquisition" was a final count based not on accepted trials but on the number of trials that wound up converting into paying customers.
This way she could do apples-to-apples comparisons with all other media channels GoToMeeting ran campaigns on.
RESULTS Good news -- although Pitcher couldn't give exact response data she could reveal that, based on CPA, RSS ads were definitely matching other, more established media including search. "These are really promising channels with a nice audience for us, and they respond well. We're not going to discontinue tests, it's one of our stronger points."
Podcasting sponsorships have done very well. "Response was overwhelming. The CPA leveled out to about the same CPA metrics."
Her main frustration is that the audience, while growing rapidly, isn't nearly big enough to roll out immense campaigns to yet. "Obviously we'd like to scale it, but there's a threshold to how much money we can spend and still get the same CPA."
That said, there's also an inherent risk to investing more as a niche media grows toward mainstream. General consumers may respond differently than passionate early adopters. Plus, once you're firmly in the mainstream, you can lose that "influencing the influencer" evangelist campaign afterglow.
MarketingSherpa's advice: If you are trying to reach that niche audience of super-cool early adopters, run (don't walk) to test RSS, blog, and podcasting ads this summer. Otherwise, hold off until summer 2006, by which time the mainstream may be there waiting for you.
Useful links related to this article
Creative samples from the GoToMeeting campaigns: http://www.marketingsherpa.com/gotomeeting/study.html
Pheedo - the RSS, Blog & Podcasting ad network GoToMeeting worked with for their campaign: http://www.pheedo.com
Three more RSS ad networks:
http://www.feedster.com http://www.laredogroup.com/imediasales.htm http://www.google.com/support/adsense/bin/answer.py?answer=20012
The Chris Pirillo Show: http://www.thechrispirilloshow.com/
Podcasting info: http://www.ipodder.org/whatIsPodcasting
Past MarketingSherpa Case Study: How to Test (and Reliably Measure) Radio Campaigns to Reach Small Business Buyers http://library.marketingsherpa.com/sample.cfm?contentID=2804
Citrix's GoToMeeting: http://www.gotomeeting.com