Muscle Media Buying

“Advertising is what you do when you can’t go see somebody. That’s all it is.”- Fairfax Cone

If you’ve got have a strong e-mail campaign going but you’re looking to expand your direct-response tactics to include online ads, chances are you will do some media buying. Why? Because purchasing banner, text or other display ads can be a very cost effective way to attract customers.

As a multi-channel marketer, many of my responsibilities over the years have required me to buy ad space in magazines, newspapers, radio, TV, and the Web. Along the way, I’ve become an expert (especially with online media), and picked up a few techniques that could save you hundreds, maybe even thousands, of dollars

But before I explain further, I’d like to point out that there are differences in online advertising.

You can focus your ad to be direct-response-oriented, which includes lead generation (acquiring e-mail names) and product sales. Or you can focus your ad on branding. Branding isn’t direct-response marketing – meaning it doesn’t require an immediate action from the consumer. Its goal, rather, is to build awareness and name recognition of a product over time and help it stay in the minds of prospects. In the offline world, think the battle of the cola giants. In the online world, it’s typically video ads like the ones you see for a new car or truck.

Because results are harder to measure with branding, many online marketers lean toward the direct-response model.

Your job as a media buyer is simply to try to get the best bang for the buck when purchasing media units. It involves allocating money for advertising in various outlets, print or online, and negotiating the actual advertising agreement with the publisher. This agreement is known as an IO (insertion order), and will cover the ad unit cost, size, placement, and other critical components (which I’ll address shortly).

Here are some helpful hints to keep in mind when buying media for your sales campaigns.

Hint #1: Keep up with the industry.

Sign up for free industry trade papers, such as DM News, Response Magazine, and Target Marketing, and as many free e-letters as you can read. One of my favorite e-letters is, because it covers the online marketing world in a comprehensive and dynamic way. I also like, which keeps you abreast of the latest media-buying news, and, which provides some of the marketing industry’s best practices, trends, and forecast reports.

One current trend is flash banners. These ad units support audio/video use (which engages the viewer and is great for branding), but they are more costly than standard flat (no animation) or animated banners.

Hint #2: Know the ad units.

There are many types of banner ads to choose from: leader boards, skyscrapers, buttons, micro banners, and more. You can find a full list of types of ads, as well as industry guidelines for how and when to use them, at All of these ad units are available on most websites, but not every type is effective.

For instance, it has been my experience that leader boards (ads that run horizontally across the top of a Web page) or skyscrapers (ads that run vertically along the side of a Web page) are the least effective. The best placements are typically LRECs – large rectangles, such as 300 x 250 IMUs, at the top or middle of a page or within the content. (IMU stands for Internet Marketing Unit.) Putting an ad inside the body of an article is a great placement, since the reader must breeze over the ad while absorbing the content. A recent eyetracking study by The Poynter Institute supported this observation, indicating that banner ads at the top left of the page, as well as ads close in proximity to the body of an article, garnered the most attention from viewers.

This is where you want your message to be!

Hint #3: Master the art of negotiation.

You will be required to analyze many proposals when you’re looking for the right ad space. You’ll need to determine if the prices are cost effective and comparable to industry rates. If you’re looking into buying ad space on, for instance, check out the prices for that same ad unit and timeframe on similarly ranked news websites. Also, check out various ad networks to see if any include in their coverage. (For more on ad networks, see Hint #7.)

Since many variables can affect ad prices, I recommend starting an “ad unit matrix” to keep track of rates. Break down a spreadsheet into columns for ad unit type, size, placement, website, impressions (how many times the ad unit appears on the website), and CPM (cost per thousand impressions). Click here to see a great tool that easily calculates the CPM for you.

Another factor that can affect pricing is seasonality. Internet traffic typically drops during July and August (because so many people are on summer vacation) and, depending on the industry you’re in, can be slower around the holidays as well. So, when you’re negotiating your media buy, try to get lower rates during those times. If you’re running near a typically slow time, let’s say around Thanksgiving, you may want to pause your ad unit the day before the holiday and the day after so you don’t waste impressions.

To help ensure that you’re getting a comparable rate, check out each site’s traffic ranking and page views to see where it stands in relation to its competitors in terms of popularity and reach. It’s best to get this information from a subscription ranking service, like Nielsen//NetRatings or ComScore – but if you don’t have access to such services, consider the free Alexa ranking website (

Hint #4: Reporting rules.

Make sure, especially if you buy media from an online ad network, that you have full access to the OAS (online ad server) reporting system. Look for key performance indicators, such as impressions served (ad units that ran), and click-thru rate (the percentage of people who saw your ad and clicked on a link in it). If you are testing various ad units and sizes, each one should have a unique tracking code. If your advertiser doesn’t give you access to their OAS, ask about getting daily or weekly reports from your account executive. These reports will be critical in refining your ad to get maximum results.

As a general guideline, the average click-thru rate for a banner ad/text ad is 0.5 to 2 percent, and the average click-thru rate for a dedicated e-mail (an e-mail ad that a third party sends to their subscribers on your behalf) is 7.5 percent.

Hint #5: Know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.

In your insertion order, have a clause that allows you to terminate your advertising commitment without penalty at a given time (an “out clause” or “termination right”). For instance, most online campaigns can be optimized in about a week. If you’re watching your reporting daily (which I suggest you do for the first two weeks) and notice that not many viewers are clicking on your ad, then you should switch to a different ad. If the second ad is not working, you may want to initiate your termination right, end the campaign, and pay only for the impressions you were served.

Not all advertisers will offer this option, but you should certainly ask for it.

Hint #6: There are no stupid questions.

If you’re buying banner ads or other advertising spots on a website, it’s key to find out a few things from your account executive:

  • Will your ad be ROS (run of site)? Typically, this means your ad will randomly appear on a site’s home page and most (if not all) subpages within the site. This is more cost effective than a targeted ad in a specific section of the site.
  • Will your ad position be fixed or rotated (shared) with anyone else’s ad? If shared, what percentage of impressions will your ad receive?
  • If you’re considering buying a dedicated e-mail from a third-party, find out the size of their e-mail list, how often the list gets mailed, the AUS (average unit sale) per subscriber, and whether or not there will be an introduction or implied endorsement by the list owner. (According to copywriting genius John Forde, this can often help boost response rates by 25 percent or more.) All of these factors will help determine the value of the list and, ultimately, the cost you’re willing to pay to access the people on it.

Hint #7: Be on the lookout for low-cost options.

If you’re targeting a specific audience or a niche buyer, go directly to the website’s publisher for an advertising quote. Cutting out the middleman (ad broker) may get you a better rate. PLUS, it will help you build a relationship with the publisher – which can be advantageous for you down the road.

If your goal is to reach the biggest, broadest audience possible, and you want to run an ad on various websites that have a distinct “channel” or genre (such as entertainment, finance, health, etc.) within the broader subject range of the site, consider an ad network.

Ad networks have an agreement with a variety of popular websites to serve up their ads, and they can sort by website type. Since they typically buy their ad units in bulk from the publishing sites, the networks can pass the savings down to the advertiser and charge a lower CPM rate. Some popular networks include and You can find a full list at

Just remember to get proposals from more than one network. Some of the lesser-known (Tier 2) networks are looking to make a name for themselves, and may offer better rates. But be wary of “micro” sites, which have little traffic or Web presence. Be sure to ask for a sample of the network’s site listings. I always go for quality over quantity.

Depending on how many impressions you buy from these ad networks, your average cost for an LREC can range from $2 to $5. For blog ads and blog networks, you can often find CPMs lower than $1 or even 50 cents. And if you’re looking to save even more money, ask if remnant inventory is available. Remnant inventory is simply an advertising unit that is not as popular as other ad units on a site and is unsold. Depending on your marketing goal, these ad units may accomplish your objective – and to make them more attractive, networks usually offer them at a lower rate.

Hint #8: Show your poker face.

In this industry, it’s all about confidence and knowledge. If you come across as someone who is savvy to media buying, you’re less likely to be taken advantage of.

Do your homework and follow some of the recommendations above… but your best lessons will happen as you buy.

[Ed. Note: Wendy Montes de Oca, MBA, is ETR’s Vice President of Marketing and Business Development. Learn more money-saving, time-saving, business-building Internet marketing techniques at this fall’s Info Marketing Bootcamp: Making a Fast Fortune on the “Other Side” of the Internet.]