Marketers eager to buy into blogs don't suffer from a lack of options. The range of entry points to advertising in so-called citizen's media may flummox some experienced online media buyers. There are standard banner ads, contextual ad products, in-post sponsorships, or even unique sole-sponsorship blog opportunities. Then again, you could scrap the media buy and just launch a corporate blog. That's a totally different beast altogether.
Brands are testing all these avenues, as marketer interest grows in a medium now read by 27 percent of U.S. Web users, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. However, any medium has potential drawbacks, and blogs are certainly no exceptions. One area of confusion for marketers is in how to measure their blog spend. Digital media, and indeed, all media, have ongoing reporting problems. (Reference this year's newspaper circ scandals and rising concerns over search engine click fraud.) The task of developing metrics for a whole new category is daunting.
The good news is when it comes to measuring blog ads, experts say you don't have to reinvent the wheel. The bad news is, many contend the wheel may not be the best tool for the job.
Just Like Any Other Site
There's nothing unique about the way in-page blog ads are measured and reported, according to several brands that have advertised in blogs and ad networks that represent these sites.
ClickZ spoke with several advertisers about the metrics they gathered for banner campaigns they ran on blogs, and none reported a major departure from other online media. Buyers included Media Revolutions, the agency behind a Kyocera campaign now running on the Burst! ad network's new blog sub-channel; MessageGate, a past advertiser on the BlogAds platform; and Hugh MacLeod, a marketing consultant and the man behind the gapingvoid blog. He also advertises on BlogAds.
None of these marketers reported special challenges in measuring their blog banners. That's not surprising, since banner ads can be run on blog sites just as they are on any other Web pages. However, some advertisers reported a difference in how they handle those metrics.
"We gathered metrics somewhat informally," said Elias Israel, director of business development for MessageGate. Israel said because the blog environment's still relatively uncrowded, he didn't feel the need to do daily monitoring of a campaign he ran last year. That's a pressure that nags him in his current search campaigns, where competitors are constantly edging each other out for top placement.
"It's less cluttered. When you advertise on a search engine, you have to farm those keywords. It's very hard to do, a daily piece of work," he said. "There's less competition for the space [on blogs]."
Send It By Post
What to do when a banner's not good enough? Considering all the talk about reaching communities of influencers, smart marketers may want to nuzzle up with the actual content of a blog. After all, Pew found 25 percent of blog readers bypass Web sites entirely, choosing instead to subscribe to RSS feeds. The only way to reach these individuals is in the content of the post itself. How popular and accepted are these placements, and is it possible to measure their effectiveness?
Bill Flitter is chief marketing officer for Pheedo, a company offering blog and feed marketing services. Flitter recently sold an in-post placement to agency ID Media, which was working on behalf of a large automotive client that preferred not to be named. The ad has all the same elements a regular post would have, including comments and trackbacks (define). Flitter promised to offer a measure of its effectiveness by monitoring that post's search ranking. The better the ranking, the better the ad can be said to perform.
It's an unorthodox approach to measuring in-post ads, but ID Media clicked with it right away, Flitter said. That's partly because search rankings are such a familiar concept. It helped him sell the ad.
The Gawker Media network of blogs handles in-post placements in a very casual way. Its homegrown sponsor shout-outs are conveyed in the editor's voice, making their impact potentially larger than other placements. Gawker CEO Nick Denton says the company doesn't directly sell these mentions, but it's certainly part of its value proposition to advertisers.
Who integrates in-post ads with on-page ads, from a buying and reporting perspective? No one, yet. But new tools will emerge to meet that demand, according to FeedBurner CEO Dick Costolo. FeedBurner creates feeds for publisher clients, offering enhancements and reporting on distribution.
"I think there will be more third party tools," he said. "Just as there's AdSense for your blog, [other blog ad units] will very much mirror that sort of process. There will be more third parties, and we'll be one of them, that let publishers create programs and we'll do the rest."
Currently, however, there's a significant reporting problem created by the burgeoning use of feed aggregators.
The Trouble With Feeds
For publishers selling ads within feeds, the RSS aggregator phenomenon poses a problem -- namely that it's still hard to sort genuine page views from robotic server hits. That's because feed readers tap publisher servers at varying rates, and because users may not even read a post that's been called up by their aggregator. Therefore, while bloggers can use services like FeedBurner to identify their total number of RSS subscribers, they can't get an accurate read on page views.
"We don't count hits from aggregators, which means we're probably undercounting page views by 20 to 25 percent," said Denton. "Up until recently, it hasn't been significant enough to warrant tracking that closely, but we're going to have to do something about it."
What will that something be? He doesn't know. Meanwhile, the providers of RSS-based services are improving their abilities to track syndicated feeds. FeedBurner's Costolo said the company is getting better at reporting not only the number of subscriptions, but also user actions.
"We measure how widely subscribed particular feeds are for publishers that are using us," he said. "We're also starting to measure the number of times items are fed and read." FeedBurner plans to offer a single pixel tracking mechanism for individual posts via a premium feature.
Eager as he is to fix it, Gawker's Denton isn't looking for a quick solution to his RSS page view problem. That's because he doesn't want to run the risk of overcorrecting. "We're underselling, but we'd rather be conservative," he said.
Not Just Like Any Other Site
The debates over the numbers and the technical aspects are fairly straightforward, but they miss a deeper debate that's going on over the nature of blogs and the communities that form around them. According to some blogging and ad sales experts, the marketing value of a media buy on blogs may be obscured by traditional reporting metrics.
Henry Copeland runs the BlogAds network, which sells advertising on a number of influential blogs, including DailyKos. Copeland, one of the first people to package and sell ads in the blog environment, argues against the notion that measurement of a blog buy should resemble that of a traditional site buy.
"Most of the stuff that goes on in blogs is currently unmeasurable...which is to say the buzziness of it," he said. "We started doing this because we think blogs are uniquely influential. In the long run, if bloggers are going to get premium value for their ads, you want to move beyond a CPC or even a CPA environment. You want your media buyers to understand that something sold to an influential is better than something sold to some guy in Wooster, Ohio (which I can pick on because it's my hometown.)"
Copeland is looking for a new metric for audience measurement. Problem is, he doesn't know what it is. But he thinks direct response metrics greatly understate the value of influence-rich blog communities.
"The problem with so much online is that they're just crap impressions," he said. "There are hundreds of thousands or millions of people that you as an advertiser don't really care about reaching. If you're in the mood to create a buzz about a product, you don't give a damn about their impressions."
Pew's survey suggests approximately a quarter of the overall audience for blogs maintain blogs themselves, lending credence to the theory that blogs are a place to create buzz and reach influencers. Then again, the stat could simply prove what many blog critics maintain -- that bloggers are simply talking to one another.
"In addition to the usual numbers -- click-through rates and conversions -- there's also the secondary pick-up on a lot of blogs," said Denton. "An item on Gizmodo will get picked up on an average of 10 or 20 gadget sites. I call it the blog multiplier effect."
While mainly a content phenomenon, the multiplier effect can impact advertising, particularly when it comes to original or unique campaigns. When Gawker Media said Audi would be the sole sponsor of its Jalopnik auto enthusiast blog, business and advertising media buzzed about it. The same thing happened earlier this year with Denton's custom "Art of Speed" blog for Nike.
"The free media is rather important for advertisers," he said. How to measure this less tangible sort of media attention? Denton admits there's no great way and doesn't give advertisers any hard metrics, but he does offer tracking of advertiser mentions, using Technorati and other blog monitoring tools.
Denton also publishes a profile of the Gawker Media audience, breaking out age, gender and level of education. But measuring these characteristics, magazine-style, doesn't quite get at the core audience characteristics a lot of blog publishers and their representatives want to convey: connectedness and influence.
"What are the unique metrics for this stuff?" said Copeland. "Not people's income and age, but how do these people really interact? Do they really get emotionally engaged and spread the word? That's the whole next dimension of this stuff. That's where the extra value of blogs are."
In a follow-up to this story, ClickZ examines how brands can measure the impact of corporate and employee blogs.
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Until March 2012, Zach Rodgers was managing editor of ClickZ's award-winning coverage of news and trends in digital marketing. He reported on the rise of web companies, data markets, ad technologies, and government Internet policy, among other subjects.
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