Small Publishers Shun Google to Sell Direct

Small sites and blog networks have long monetized by running relatively low value ads served through plug-and-play affiliate networks like Google AdSense. But some entrepreneurial publishers are eschewing those ubiquitous text ads or large network-served banners in the hopes of selling direct to brand advertisers and agencies through their own sales forces.

Education content network Hot Chalk has been recruiting for two sales positions for about a month now. The network, which features sites like Kidipede History for Kids and The Lesson Plans Page, recently scored new ad clients like Manhattanville College, McDonald’s Passport2Play and Walden University’s Master’s in Education program.

“We’ve had inquiries from brand advertisers…as well as traffic purchasers from brands,” said Hot Chalk CEO Edward Fields.

The company aims to hire five salespeople by the end of the year. “I would suggest to some extent we’re ahead of the curve,” said Fields. “As more dollars move online [advertisers] have questions about what other ways can [they] tell [their] story besides text links on the side of a Google search.”
The privately held publisher wouldn’t share any ad revenue numbers, but execs are confident they’ll have enough advertiser interest to warrant the additional staff. “Projecting out against our growth, we’re expecting more demand from advertisers,” Fields told ClickZ News.

Publishers that can’t swing sales staff salaries, which can run into six figures, should hold off on hiring account reps, said JupiterResearch Analyst Emily Riley. She estimated smaller sites or networks typically take in $20,000 a month from brand advertisers who tend to scatter most of their online budgets on more proven sites or networks.

The goal for publishers selling direct, she said, “is how do you move beyond test budgets?”

Still, she continued, “Over the last year some blogs have started ramping up their internal sales efforts.” She’s also witnessed small site publishers selling exclusive sponsorships like homepage or category buyouts.

Pete Vlastelica, founder of Yardbarker, a Digg-like sports content distribution site and a new sports blog ad network is directly shopping around his lineup of blogs written exclusively for the network by pro athletes including featherweight champ Robert “The Ghost” Guerrero, top 2007 NBA Draft pick Greg Oden, and Los Angeles Angels starting pitcher John Lackey.

“It’s our highest value inventory,” said Vlastelica, who added advertisers are expressing interest in sponsoring the player blogs. “Part of the value to the athletes is we’re matching them to high value sponsors,” he continued. To appease advertisers with concerns about blog content quality, Yardbarker has set up editorial guidelines for the select sites in its ad network.

Yardbarker is also scouting for a sales exec. So far, though, it’s been Vlastelica doing the direct pitching for the past month to agencies and brand advertisers. At this point, advertisers like Sling Media and eBay have purchased CPM-based display ads in the network; however, those came through a relationship with ad platform and services provider Adify, which powers ads on Yardbarker as well as HotChalk.
“If you don’t have a sales force, don’t build a network,” said Adify CEO Russell Fradin.

Bloggers on the 50 sites in the Yardbarker ad network, pruned from its larger site network roster, “are concerned about the ad creative” running through other networks, Vlastelica said. “Our message to them is we’re trying to match them up with advertisers that they’ll be proud to have on their sites.”

Though she believes advertisers are looking for new Web ad opportunities and may entertain direct sales approaches from smaller publishers, Jupiter’s Riley cautioned moving towards a direct sales model could be risky for some. Advertisers typically look to third party traffic measurement providers when determining whether to buy ads on a site or network. “A big decider is how well known your brand is with advertisers. If your brand is relatively unknown,” she said, “There’s a risk you may not be listed in Nielsen or comScore.”

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