My marketing philosophy is to do something very different, really well, for a specific audience. It’s the “Blue Ocean Strategy” in business school jargon.
There’s no sense in ruthlessly competing over a small bit of marketing space when there’s plenty of room if you simply specialize and do something a bit differently.
This website is in the digital marketing “space” where every single one of my competitors uses Google Ads & Facebook Ads to attract visitors – which makes total sense.
However, instead of bidding on those networks (and spending hours optimizing & competing with PPC specialists), I’ve tried experimenting with other channels like advertising on Reddit, doing content discovery on Outbrain – and old school SEO off-page ideas.
But what about advertising in print? Like – a magazine. People obviously still read them – plenty are still in business. And it may very well be the case that since so much time and focus for websites is spent on online advertising – print might be a good idea. It’s counter-intuitive & very ironic for a digital marketing blog, but I figured I’d have a go at it even though I had no idea what I was doing.
I thought learning the process might be worthwhile…and even if my cost per visitor was really high – I’d get a really cool blog post & lots of lessons out of it. Besides, surely a print ad would drive some visitors (I thought). Here’s my experiment on how to buy a print ad, what to consider to make it a success, and what to really look at when allocating budget between print ads vs. online ads.
How to Buy a Print Ad
Online ads are almost always sold on self-serve platforms that are fairly straightforward to use. Buying print ads turned out to be straightforward in hindsight, but very confusing when I was in the middle of it – mainly because the process is so drawn out and requires more planning up front. I broke the process down into 4 basic steps.
Choose Your Audience
You have to really think about who exactly you are trying to reach before searching for magazines or publications. It can be demographic (ie, what age they are), geographic (ie, what age they are) – but I find that psychographic (what type of person/what do they think) is also useful. There’s no testing & revsing after your ad is published. Investing on the front-end is worthwhile.
The segment of my audience that I chose to focus on was 30 to 45 year old side-business owners interested in setting up their own website, and trying to learn to market online.
Choose Your Publication
This step is both fun and tedious. You can Google various magazines to try to get a list…except that I found it really tough to find magazines & get a good sense of what they are without having a list to start out with.
So I went down to the Barnes & Noble bookstore magazine section. I wasn’t looking for magazines I’d like to advertise in, but rather magazines that I thought a potential website reader might be reading.
It turns out that my potential publications were either really high-end with famous brands (ie, INC. or Entrepreneur) or were admittedly lower-end and more direct response (the “Business Opportunities” type magazines). I ended up with a short list of potential magazines to research further online.
I went to each magazine’s website and tracked down their “Media Kit” – which is basically their sales pitch to advertisers with reader demographic data, and deadlines for orders. The deadline for ad orders is especially key since you’ll have to submit your ad well before it is published.
You can use it to narrow down and choose your publication – along with getting the contact information for the ad sales people. And you sort of have to get in contact with their ad sales people. There’s no self-serve option for print ads. You will get upsold, and it will be tedious (and a bit confusing) going back and forth with the sales rep. But ultimately, they have the information you need to run the ad, and will be the ones who place the order.
Choose Your Ad Specifications
Print ads are priced almost solely on size and color options. The price rapidly goes up depending on how big and how colorful your ad is. In theory, bigger & more colorful ads get more attention, and drive more traffic. All the retail prices for the ads are listed in media kits.
Unlike online ads where you can generally see what your banner ad will look like in every size and context automatically as you generate it – you really don’t have a preview option for the ad specs in print.
The most helpful tip I found was to get a copy of the magazine and go through and try to find examples of each size and try to guesstimate its worth. Also, (at least with the ad sales people I talked to) you don’t really get to pick your placement – unless you have big money.
For my test ad, I chose a small marketplace ad in the back of the magazine. I wanted to run the smallest effective test to learn the process. And get a sense of what the traffic potential of a print ad was.
Lastly, all the prices in the media kit are negotiable – and some more than others. Get in contact with the sales people and have a specific negotiation strategy & goal in place. Many small magazines are also run by a single publisher with a single ad sales person, so budget plenty of time for back and forths. I ended up getting a 15% first time advertiser discount – which isn’t incredible, but it added up to $90 on a small ad.
Create Your Ad
Online ads are always in standard pixel width. They can be quickly edited and adjusted – even after they are live, and you get to track every time someone clicks your ads. Some ad networks (like Google) will even track when someone hovers their mouse over your ad to track a View-Through Conversion. You can also serve & test many variations of banner and text ads online. You can also pretty much launch your ad in minutes (instead of months with print ads)
None of that is true of print ads. I ended up breaking my ad creation process into 4 steps.
The Message & Call to Action
Even though you can’t test your print ad, you can run a small Google Ads campaign with different messaging and then use the winner for your print ad. For my small text ad, I knew the text that performed well on both Facebook & Ads, so I simply used that messaging.
You have to present what your ad will look like – and send it over in certain format (usually JPG or PNG). Since it will actually be printed, you’ve got to work with inches/centimeters instead of pixels. And you have to take into account DPI for the printers.
If you have Photoshop and know how to use it – great. I ended up just using Paint & Word to get my all text ad just right. Either way, keep in mind that your ad will probably look *a lot* smaller in print than in the magazine. If you’re doing it yourself for the first time, be sure to budget time for a bit of back and forth with the publisher to make sure everything is good format-wise.
- Even though you cannot track “clicks” on your print ad, you can use an indirect method to track how many visitors you got from the print ad. It’s not 100% fool-proof, but it will give you a good sense of how much volume you’re getting.
- Make the URL in your print ad something unique – mine was shivarweb.com/start – this URL will not be a page, but will simply redirect to the real landing page
- Go to Google’s URL Builder with your actual landing page URL – mine was shivarweb.com/website-setup – you’ll be “tagging” it with variables that will show up in Google Analytics
- Fill out all the variables in URL Builder with unique tags. The source might be the magazine name, medium might be offline, and campaign name might be your ad’s nickname or date. Mine ended up looking like: https://www.shivarweb.com/website-setup/?utm_source=sbo&utm_medium=offline&utm_term=start&utm_campaign=offline-sbo
- Now setup a 301 redirect for your print ad URL to redirect to your tagged landing page URL. There are dozens of ways to set this up depending on your site. In WordPress, I use a plugin like Redirection or Yoast SEO. You can even setup a whole domain name or subdomain to redirect if that’s easier.
- The result is that when someone sees your ad; they will go to the URL in the ad; the URL in the ad will redirect to the page you want them to land on, which will be tagged with Analytics variables. In Google Analytics, that visit will show up however you tagged your URL.
Place The Insertion Order & Wait
Once you have your ad finalized and formatted, send it to your ad sales rep and tell them to place an “insertion order” for a specific issue. Payment is usually due with the ad insertion order.
Now, you get to wait. Compared to online ads, the lead time for print ads seems ridiculously long. I submitted mine the day before the deadline, and still had to wait a month and a half to actually see the ad in print.
So if you’re thinking about testing a print ad, judging the results, then placing another – plan for a very long process.
My primary lesson learned was how the process worked & what’s needed simply to run a print ad. It’s also not something you can just toss up to test like an Google Ads or Facebook ad.
As far as website metrics & ROI, my ad was a complete, miserable failure. $100 per visitor was $99 more than I wanted to pay (and about $99 more than I can get via Ads/Facebook/Reddit/Outbrain). Even 18 months after the experiment – I had not generated any new visitors.
The only upside was that those new visitors did come back to the site a lot. They came back an average of 10 times per visitor in the couple of months after the ad ran. So they were engaged.
That said – every magazine has plenty of repeat advertisers, including website offers. Print ads obviously still work for someone. The key is to figure out exactly how and why, so the price you pay actually makes sense. I pulled 6 other lessons from the experience I wished I knew before spending the money.
1. Really understand your offer
My offer was way too far “down the marketing funnel” for the ad I took out. In other words, it was a direct response ad to solve a problem I suspect many readers in the back of the issue didn’t know they had. The more complicated or specific your offer is – the bigger your ad will need to be to get attention & generate interest before trying to get them to visit.
Small ads are great for throwing a broad product or service to people already sold on it – they are just looking for a provider, which leads to the next lesson…
2. Make it a brand play
If direct response is too tough to work out, or the ad would be too expensive, look at the print ad as a way to get your brand in front of a new audience. It’s a vague and tough to measure goal, but people are more likely to buy from brands they are more familiar with…once they are ready to buy. If you have budget, and have seen other brand plays work (ie, Google Display Network), then it’s an angle worth exploring. The fact that my small number of new visitors came back so often after the ad points in this promising direction.
If you are going for a brand play – budget out for a multiple issue ad buy. From my magazine readership behavior – I tend to notice and remember repeat advertisers. They’re the ones that become almost part of the content & of the experience flipping through (I’m looking at you – passport services in the classifieds of The Economist). Rather than just another ad.
3. Bargain Harder
I got 15% off my first ad – but I should have negotiated harder for more off or better placement.
4. Go bigger earlier
Once I saw my actual ad in the actual print magazine, I realized exactly why big ads cost more – they really do draw a lot more attention. A small ad buried in the marketplace is easy to gloss over. If I want to do the same type ad (direct response), the test would be worth going bigger.
5. Pay for or commit time for good creative
Again, once I saw my actual print ad, I realized the value of just basic graphic design. Even if you use something like 99designs or Upwork – even a little bit more graphic or typography can go a long ways.
6. Find the right ad mix
Tests are great to learn what you don’t know, but ultimately they need to all fit into a coherent strategy where your print, display, search & social, and retargeting ads can all play well together. I had a small retargeting audience setup in Google Analytics, but it would always help to think a bit broader into what your trying to accomplish and how each piece fits into the whole strategy.
Print Ads vs. Online Ads
If you have a small advertising budget and are trying to get a sense of print ads vs. online ads – nothing can compete with a well-targeted online search campaign (see my marketing plans for ecommerce and local businesses. You can launch and test quickly, target specific keywords, pay only for actual clicks, and measure exactly what your visitors are doing.
That said, using search only is like fishing with a rod and really good bait. If you want to go really big, you’ll have to break out the fishing net at some point. Print ads can play that role, but require a lot more planning, time, research, and money than even online display or retargeting ads do.
If you’re really interested in print – invest in a lot of research up front, starting with the bookstore magazine rack.
If you’ve ever run a DIY print campaign or are thinking about it – let me know in the comments (if they are closed, then email me your comment for me to manually post the comment).