An Open Letter to Ken Kurson

Dear Ken,

Paging through the current copy of Industry Standard the other night, I came across an article written about your site, Green.

Let me say it right upfront: I love the concept, Ken.

An online financial publication with an edge. Written for intelligent people who are clueless about managing their money. Articles that don’t read as if they sprung from the pages of Money or Worth. Punk finance. Good stuff.

I like the way you’ve segmented yourself from the big guys. You aren’t going after the sophisticated crowd that Raging Bull, TheStreet.com or Motley Fool have pretty well locked up. Yours is an “unbranded” audience. They aren’t at the level yet where they would have established an account with an eTrade or decided what mutual funds to sink their hard-earned dollars into.

They know what they don’t know, and that’s where you come in.

So any advertiser or sponsor you attract is in the enviable position of having the first crack at this audience’s business… I like it!

But in the article, there came the fateful passage where the reporter asked you how you are going to monetize this small but growing audience. Your answer: banners.

Trust me on this one, Ken: Don’t do it! You’ve got something special there. Treat it special! Don’t treat it like a commodity. It isn’t. So you shouldn’t use a commodity like banners as your primary source of revenue.

Why?

If I’m a media buyer and I’m looking to run a campaign for Ameritrade or Fidelity or the like: Congratulations, you are on my radar screen. Only problem is, you are on the same spreadsheet with your colleagues listed above, as well as every other financial site that they can cook up, and those sites are legion.

Think a media buyer really cares that you are “different” and “edgy” and that you attract a newer, fresher audience than the other guys? Nope. You are a row on a buyer’s spreadsheet. He is under pressure to get the media plan over to the boss and then out to the client in the next 24 hours. The buyer doesn’t have time to talk you up to the boss, and frankly, the kind of distinction you are offering is fairly subtle. That buyer may not get it.

So price pressure given what it is, you might be lucky to get a CPM in the teens. Most likely single digits. And if you don’t cooperate, he knows he can get the price he wants at a dozen other places. But once you go there with the cheap CPM, Ken, it’s incredibly difficult to go higher. You’ve established a precedent.

With the small but unique audience you have, how might you make yours a more valuable offer? Try stealing a good idea from someone else… In your case, take a stroll over to two different sites.

First, go to Forbes.com. You won’t find any IAB standard banners there. Look at the top of the page. See those six sections and their sponsors: Technology (Ernst & Young), Convergence (Sun), Startups (Agillion), Companies (Oracle), eBusiness (Microsoft), and Personal Finance (Fidelity).

And when you go to those sections, along the right side there are some rather large display ads (I hesitate to call them banners) for various companies. They measure 150×800. I don’t have their rate card handy, but I’ll bet it ain’t cheap to advertise on Forbes.com.

Frankly, if it were me, I’d offer the sponsors exclusivity on those content areas in order to create even more value. Ownership of a subject area can be a great way for a sponsor to get a better shot at an audience they really value.

Second, go to the Dilbert Zone. Dilbert has three sponsorships that are quite cool: Dilbert’s TravelZone, sponsored by LowestFare.com; Dilbert’s HelpDesk, sponsored by NoWonder.com; and Dilbert’s CareerZone, sponsored by RHI Consulting.

Check them out. Note the interplay between the Dilbert brand and the sponsors’. The content of each zone relates directly to the advertiser’s mission, but it’s not an advertorial. It’s still good stuff. Useful and informative for the readers. Everybody wins: publisher, advertiser and reader.

For an exclusive, unique publication like yours, you can’t go about sponsorship and advertising like everybody else does. You have to be different.

Fortunately or unfortunately, that means that for the most part you need to bypass the agencies and go directly to the companies who would most benefit from exposure to your audience. It’s not that agencies are the bad guys, it’s just that a customized sell requires a lot of time, effort and mutual “skin in the game” that most media buyers just don’t have the bandwidth to give you. Ultimately, you may be referred back to the agency, but only after you’ve secured a working relationship with the advertiser.

It takes you out of the commodity game and puts you in more of a boutique or specialty slot which is a far more lucrative and interesting place to be as a publisher.

It takes you out of filling out RFPs (requests for proposal) and puts you into actively and creatively partnering with companies who want to reach and interact with your audience.

It takes you out of response mode and into involvement. The relationship you will enjoy with your key sponsors will be something you really treasure… and so will they.

So Ken, forget banners. They don’t do your site justice. You’ll only lose if you play that game.

Go for the triple win of relevant and meaningful sponsorships. You’ll never regret it.

Best wishes,

Andy Bourland

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