The Road Show

“I don’t know how he does it, but he dallies and he gathers and he plucks and he shines. And when the man dances, certainly boys, what else? The piper pays him!”
The Music Man

When Professor Harold Hill went to River City, he was seeking riches, but found love. Many online businesses today send their people out on the road looking for both love and bounty.

Many sites starting up these days have a much more difficult task than they used to when it comes to promoting themselves.

In the good old days, you could build a site, talk a little bit about it, buy banners on some sites, get listed on a few directories or search engines, and that was it. This exhausted the audience development efforts and then word of mouth did the rest. This satisfied the interactive community at large – potential advertisers, partners, and media buyers.

Also, the reasons for self-promotion weren’t as complicated. A site made noise on its own behalf for the purposes of driving traffic. If the dotcom had an advertising component to its business model, perhaps it was necessary to attract the media community. But there really wasn’t much else other than building an audience and letting the people to whom this was important know that you were building an audience.

However, all that changed in the spring of 1997 when’s IPO created a huge buzz and began a watershed of hugely successful, if irrational Internet IPOs.

Though Netscape and Yahoo both went public the year before, it wasn’t until Amazon hit that the investment community started to take notice. From that point onward, it started to become apparent to many online properties that perhaps the most important community to get in front of in the media space was the VC community.

Now, these guys have always been terribly important to attract. They are the oxygen most start-ups out there breathe. But before the “current era,” it was a matter of compelling business plan and solid leadership.

Not that these things have changed. But it has become imperative for new dotcom start-ups to demonstrate to the VC community that they not only have a solid business plan, but an affiliation with a well known Internet brand.

More and more clients of mine have asked for something that I call the “Road Show Buy.” This is when the advertiser asks for extraordinary placement on a familiar web site that quite possibly has nothing at all to do with its product, service, or target.

I used to run into this with traditional advertisers as well. Clients would ask that we buy placement in a certain magazine or TV program that the client felt this “off-target” segment would be using. For packaged goods, that audience was the buyer for the grocery store chain. For the Internet, it is the VC community, investors and, thus, the board.

If I’m trying to reach home office radiologists who like punk rock, Ultimate Band List might make sense because of the music enthusiast segment.

But the client is going out for a second round of financing. Or they just filed their S-1 to go public. The VCs and Wall Street have probably never heard of UBL. But they do know Yahoo. And saying you have a relationship with Yahoo gets attention from those people. It impresses upon them that the advertiser is a serious player.

So, how do you go about making this kind of buy? What do you look for? How do you judge what gets set before you?

Well, my first bit of advice is to take as much direction given you by the client as possible. Since most of these kinds of things are client dictates (we used to call them “must-buys”), it is best to listen carefully to what they tell you and take to heart their recommendations. A lot of what will determine a “good” from a “bad” opportunity is how well it meets the client’s expressed desire.

Next, look for something that is truly unique about the kinds of placements available. Even if it isn’t the most relevant space, perhaps it can be the most interesting. This includes above the fold, front-page graphics, co-op games, side-columns, etc.

Finally, though the buy can’t be evaluated on a cost-per-action metric like so many of them are, it doesn’t hurt to still run the numbers, if for no other reason than to manage expectations on the part of the client.

The thing to remember about this kind of buy is that it is as important to the client as the rest of their buys. Trust me, I’ve made the mistake of not making them a priority alongside the rest of a client’s buys and have been called to the mat on it. No fun, indeed.

If a client comes to you with a site they want to spend a quarter of their budget against, that has little to do with their product, target, or service, it isn’t trouble in River City. It’s just a new opportunity for you to give them the service they want. And who knows? You may just find the client their riches and their Marion the Librarian.

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