When you get right down to it, digital advertising really isn’t all that different from offline advertising in traditional channels – at least in theory. As the advertiser, you rent space on someone else’s platform, whether that’s a printed newspaper, a radio broadcast, a television station, or a website. That rented space is then yours to use to spread your marketing message, (within certain guidelines and limitations). You pay the owner of the platform for the space you’re using based on some previously agreed upon metric.
As far as that goes, offline and online advertising look very much alike. Of course, as anyone who has ventured into digital advertising can attest, that brief description barely scratches the surface. And what lies beyond the similarities can be overwhelming and confusing to small business marketers who are exploring their digital ad options.
One of the first questions any new digital advertiser must answer is “What digital ad platform is best for my company’s needs, goals and budget?”
What Is a Digital Advertising Platform?
If you’re interested in running digital ads, you’ve got several choices to consider. From social media to search display ads to third-party websites, digital advertising platforms abound.
So for a casual working definition of the phrase, we can say that a digital advertising platform is any digital space in which you can publish a digital advertisement for your business, usually as a combination of text, an optional image, and a link that typically leads the user to a page on your own website. That page may be a product page or a landing page, depending on your company’s specific goals for that ad campaign.
A few examples illustrate the breadth and flexibility of digital advertising:
1. A Facebook user sees an ad you’ve placed on that social media site. The ad’s call to action is to “Download Your Free Buyer’s Guide” for a product you sell on your e-commerce site. Clicking the ad takes the user to a landing page on your site where you offer the buyer’s guide in exchange for the user’s name and email address, which you then add to your email marketing list so you can send more targeted email marketing messages to the user. This makes the user a prospective customer, and your messages help move the prospect further down the marketing funnel, closer to making a purchase from your site.
2. Your SaaS product offers a free trial period. You publish an ad on a third-party website in a niche related to your product — say, a banner ad at the top of the home page. When users click on that banner ad, they’re taken straight to the free trial sign-up page on your product’s website. From there, they can sign up for the two week free trial (and also add themselves to your email list), and then evaluate your product directly. Of course, you’ll also send them follow-up messages and offers of training to help them make the most of your product.
3. A user searches for a specific service — namely, the service your consulting company offers. You’ve bought ad space on the search engine for that keyword, so your ad displays right above the search results. When users click on the ad, they’re taken to a page on your website that outlines the specific services your company offers in that specific field, along with a contact form to schedule a free initial call.
These examples and their details are just a few illustrations of the ways in which small business advertisers can configure their ad campaigns and the linked-to pages that help convert browsers into subscribers, trial users, prospects and customers.
Those above examples also illustrate the different types of digital ad platforms. Search engine ads, third-party website banner ads, social media ads – which one is right for you?
Google Ads (Search and Display)
The Google search engine is just half of the available Google ad space you need to be aware of, and which half you choose depends on your goals.
The first type, Google search ads, are illustrated in example #3 above. They are primarily text-based and are displayed at the top of search results. An advertiser purchases space on the results pages of a specific search, based on a keyword or phrase that the advertiser believes is likely to connect its brand to the right people — that is, search users who are looking for what the advertiser provides (either product or service).
The second type is the display ad network. This is the program that lets you easily place your ads on third-party websites, while still enjoying the advantages of Google’s powerful advertiser tools.
Search ads are built on the cost-per-click model, where you pick one or more search phrases (keywords) that relate to your business and ad campaign. For example, if you operate a plumbing business in Little Rock, Arkansas, you might want your ads to display anytime someone searches for “plumbers little rock.” You’ll bid on that phrase, and every time a user clicks on your ad, you’re obligated to pay the CPC fee.
Those fees can be on the high end of affordable, depending on the amount of traffic your chosen keyphrase gets on average. Hugely popular search phrases can cost you up to $55 per click, a CPC fee that’s beyond most small businesses. The average is much less, approximately $2.69 per click.
Display ads work a little bit differently. You can still target specific keywords. However, you can also choose specific types of websites that are related to your business and your prospects. Using the same example, you might want your plumbing company ad to be displayed in the header of the local hardware store’s website, perhaps in the plumbing tools and supplies section.
Their fees are also generally less expensive than search ad fees. The most recent figures indicate an average CPC of $0.63.
Facebook (and Other Social Network) Ads
Social media ads are increasingly effective ways to get your marketing message in front of a dynamic, young demographic.
Facebook in particular is an insanely useful platform for small business advertisers, thanks to its granular levels of targeting controls. By specifying the traits and demographics you’d like to get your ad in front of, you can restrict your ad’s display to a group of people that’s much more likely to find your ad interesting and your product useful.
That level of control is important, because it helps you reduce your budget and maximize your results, simultaneously. The central issue is the base group of users to whom the ad is displayed—we’ll call it your display group. If your ad’s display group consists of 100,000 users, but only 10% of them are actually interested in your product and somewhat ready to make a purchase, then your click-through rate (CTR) will be really low, and your ad’s effectiveness suffers as a result. By reducing the display group closer to that 10% level, your ad’s rating in terms of effectiveness and CTR skyrockets.
In addition, Facebook’s advertising tools also make ad campaign management easier, especially for new advertisers. You can choose an ad template that best fits your goal, such as driving traffic to your website, increasing email list sign-ups, and more.
Facebook and other social media platform ads can be more cost-effective for small business advertisers. For example, the cost for Facebook ads can be less than for Google. Across all industries and fields, the average Facebook CPC is $1.72.
Third-Party Site Ads
In addition to display ad networks, such as Google Ads (discussed above), you can use other ad networks to purchase ad space on popular websites. You can also negotiate directly with those websites, a method that typically works best for small businesses when the site is popular but not hugely so—think your local paper’s website, not the New York Times.
However, an ad network is generally easier for new advertisers to work with and manage. These ad networks, as alternatives to the big platforms such as Google and Facebook, may also save small business advertisers money, while still helping them reach a broader audience. In Google Ads, for example, the most expensive keywords can cost over $50 per click, while the average cost per click (CPC) for a Facebook ad is about $1.72, and rising.
Another reason you might want to explore alternative or smaller ad networks is that both Facebook and Google have restricted advertisements for companies in certain areas. As a result, adult entertainment or adult services companies, as well as pharmaceutical companies, gaming companies, and affiliate marketing companies may experience serious obstacles in getting their ad campaigns approved. Smaller ad networks can be more flexible.
If you prefer this route, you have dozens of display ad networks from which you can choose. It’s important to do your research before signing up with any of them, and limiting your ad spend to what your budget can safely handle without getting stretched too thin.
Above all, pick one strategy, execute, and see what kind of results you get. Digital advertising is an endeavor that lends itself beautifully to nimble testing and experimentation.