How One Content Site Has Stayed on Solid Ground

When Tim Carter launched the Ask the Builder site in 1995, its business model was classic mid ’90s: It was an advertising-supported content site. Carter, a nationally syndicated columnist and TV home-improvement guru, offered an encyclopedic array of home fix-it advice. All revenue came from banner ads. Carter did well, grossing in the mid six figures by the late ’90s.

The advertising-supported content model has since fallen into disrepute, with plenty of well-publicized failures. Online advertising’s viability as a revenue source is seen as no more reliable than the California power grid.

Yet Carter’s site continues to be a moneymaker. Like many sites relying on this model, it shifted away from relying purely on ad revenues. But Carter’s survival techniques reveal some interesting truths about online advertising.

Ask the Builder is a homespun affair. It’s essentially a one-man operation. (He had an ad salesperson, but the downturn made that unfeasible.) Its WebTrends stats show that it receives about 40,000 unique visitors per month. Revenues hover at the low- to mid-six-figure level. The site’s advertisers have included window manufacturer Pella, Coastal Tool, and weatherproofer Saver Sealant. Carter creates almost all the site’s content, which is searchable by keyword.

While his site may be folksy, Carter is savvy about making ends meet. “Last year we saw an almost 60 percent drop in advertising revenue,” he says. Responding to the change, Carter replaced his lost ad revenue by selling home-improvement items from the site. But he still makes a good chunk of his money from advertising. This Cincinnati-based home-repair guru has an online ad approach that should last through good times and bad.

Trust Marketing

In an unorthodox step, Carter refuses to sell advertising on his front page. “It cheapens the content,” he says. “Think about it. You don’t see an ad on the front of Time magazine or the front of a newspaper.” Carter claims advertisers request it all the time, but his goal is to put advertising in the context of useful information.

This “integrity approach” is apparent as you scan the site’s content. Prior to launching the site, Carter was a full-time homebuilder for 22 years and was named one the Top 50 Remodelers in 1993. Consequently, the quality and depth of the articles keep an audience coming back for more on a regular basis.

This quality content is reflected in the ad rates. In another break from standard procedure, Carter charges by the day instead of by the impression. Based on his log readings, the effect of this is that his rates are higher than industry average (and manufacturers who get exclusive placement in a section pay still higher: $20 per day instead of the usual $10). His advertisers understand this and apparently don’t mind — reaching 40,000 users who are visiting a trusted information source makes it worthwhile.

Beyond the Banner

Realizing the banner ad’s limitations, Carter now uses a product-placement ad technique. In his site’s section about restoring decks, for example, he’ll include a photo of a wood-sealant product. This photo includes a link to more information — and a place to buy the product. Just as Tom Cruise might hold a Budweiser in a movie, this product placement photo places the marketing message within the context of trusted content.

Here Carter is using one of online advertising’s great strengths: Links to products can be seamlessly integrated into material the consumer actively seeks — and believes in. “Most of the companies see the value of the product placement,” Carter says.

Streaming Video

Carter will use the coming broadband expansion to employ innovative online advertising techniques. The site already offers three short videos demonstrating home-improvement techniques. He plans on creating a library of do-it-yourself videos, each with a short commercial in the middle. Site visitors can watch for free, and advertisers will be charged per viewing. The potential advantage to users is enormous. “Even text with photos can be confusing to someone trying to learn home improvement,” says Carter, “but if you watch a video, you’ll see how to hold that piece of crown molding or that putty knife.

“I’ve got some companies that are interested,” he says, “but they’re waiting for more people. The streaming video is only going to work when more people have cable access or DSL.”

A Tight Ship

Perhaps the real secret to Carter’s success with the traditionally unsuccessful advertising-supported content model is low operating costs. He has a bare-bones support staff (his wife pitches in, and he has some part-time help), and his Web-hosting fee is the princely sum of $100 per month. He handles all ad sales and billing himself.

If the mantra of offline business is “Location, location, location,” the mantra of the advertising-supported content site needs to be “Efficiency, efficiency, efficiency.” You can make a living offering content online and supporting it with ad sales, but, as Tim Carter says, “You better be lean and mean.”

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