Google is testing an emerging barcode technology in its print ad program, along with several other response options aimed at tracking results of newspaper ads placed through the system. Though newspapers may be making less for ads sold through Google Print Ads than they might selling those placements direct, advertisers that wouldn't be buying paper ads otherwise are testing them.
Health insurance comparison site eHealth gave up on newspaper print ads in 2003. "Frankly we stopped doing it because we found other channels more effective and efficient for us," said Bruce Telkamp, the company's EVP business operations. Because the company works with insurance carriers across the country, "We needed a platform that allowed us to participate and buy media from many different newspapers," said Telkamp. "Health insurance is a very, very local product." Like many other Web firms advertising locally, eHealth had placed more ad dollars in paid search, online display advertising, and affiliate marketing in hopes of driving traffic to its site.
Cost is a big factor for ROI-driven advertisers like eHealth. In addition to reducing ad planning and placement time, Telkamp said a test of the print system last year resulted in prices far lower than amounts paid for similar print newspaper ads several years ago.
After spending about $500,000 in 2007 to test Google's print offering, eHealth has begun experimenting with new response methods the search firm has introduced. Among those is a 2D barcode technology so cutting-edge, it's unlikely to get much play here in the U.S. anytime soon. In Google's case, the QR or "Quick Response" code technology connects its newspaper print ads to mobile Web sites. Mobile devices with the appropriate software scan the codes which link to specific mobile site URLs. News Corp. has used the technology for ads in its U.K. tabloid newspaper The Sun.
"We recognize this is a technology that is probably a year to 18 months out," said Spencer Spinnell, head of sales strategy for Google Print Ads, referring to the QR codes.
Perennial Web advertiser Blue Nile finds ROI measurement especially important. The online jewelry purveyor has also tested the codes, along with a series of what Google calls "consumer response tags" featured in their paper ads, such as 1-800 numbers, SMS text numbers, unique URLs, coupon codes, and dedicated Google search terms.
The uniqueness of the barcode image, which sits below the ads along with a list of other response options, is enough to appeal to Blue Nile's tech savvy, male target consumer, said Blue Nile marketing director Jon Sainsbury. "Just the look of it is something that resonates favorably with our customers," he explained.
A Blue Nile test ad placed through the system listed the dedicated search keyword, "Blue Nile 100." The resulting Google search Web page is topped with a Blue Nile sponsored link, along with listings relevant to the firm including a link to its business profile and a story about its brand philosophy. On the other hand, a search for "Blue Nile" alone brings up links to pages about the river, a band with the same name, and a sponsored link to competitor UnitedDiamonds.com.
eHealth also will try the barcode offering, though Telkamp said, "My expectations are very tempered." What does work for him and other advertisers using Google's print program is measuring traffic coming to their sites from particular geographic areas.
Cruise vacation provider Cruise.com also checks for traffic lift, attributing some of that site traffic to ads placed in papers in that region. The company also uses unique phone numbers in its paper ads.
As far as Cruise'com's managing directory Anthony Hamawy is concerned, even though dwindling print advertising has been hard on newspaper publishers, it's resulted in less competition for eyeballs. "A lot of cruise lines aren't as big on print as they used to be," he said.
The company, which advertises deals on cruise vacations, has used print for about 10 years, according to Hamaway. "We shifted from doing it direct to going through Google," he added, noting the firm spends about 40 percent of its ad budget on print newspapers.
The search giant's print program launched in November 2006. Google claimed 700 newspapers, including dailies, college papers, free dailies, Hispanic papers, alternative weeklies, shoppers, and business journals are partners, though the Google site lists fewer papers participating. The ads show up in unsold newspaper display ad inventory, and Google's ad creation tool has enabled images for the past few months.
Like online ad networks selling remnant inventory, the Google system greatly reduces ad revenue in some cases, compared to ads sold direct by the newspapers themselves. Still, incrementally, the program could help papers grab new advertisers that wouldn't have bothered with them if buying direct were the only option.
Cruise.com paid around $600 for a quarter-page ad in a Florida paper through Google that he said would have cost $2,400 if bought direct. "We would have never wasted our time there just because it's time consuming," he said. Ads bought through the system are priced by size, per column inch.
Even if the paper decides to raise the minimum bid amount for such ads, Hamaway could still find value if going through the online system. "I think [the newspaper] saw this as a lead generator for them for customers they never had," he said. "They're almost like a drug dealer. They're giving someone the free test and they're getting them addicted. I think it's a good way for the newspaper companies to look at it."
Though Blue Nile spends less than 5 percent of its ad budget in traditional media like newspapers and direct mail, Sainsbury suggested newspapers would be out of the question if not for the Google program. "For us to go out and build a newspaper campaign, we don't have anyone here who knows how to do that. I wouldn't know where to start."
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Kate Kaye was Managing Editor at ClickZ News until October 2012. As a daily reporter and editor for the original news source, she covered beats including digital political campaigns and government regulation of the online ad industry. Kate is the author of Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media, the only book focused on the paid digital media efforts of the 2008 presidential campaigns. Kate created ClickZ's Politics & Advocacy section, and is the primary contributor to the one-of-a-kind section. She began reporting on the interactive ad industry in 1999 and has spoken at several events and in interviews for television, radio, print, and digital media outlets. You can follow Kate on Twitter at @LowbrowKate.
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