How I secured a $30k advertising contract with barely any traffic

At the beginning of 2019, I was caught in a hard place –my startup’s subscription service wasn’t gaining any traction, and we were running out of cash.

I wasn’t ready to give up on the company, however, and decided it’s time to sit on my ass and make some money the traditional way on the internet:

content > visitors > ad revenue.

Typical website ad placements (Photo by Jo San Diego on Unsplash)

The Problem of Making Money from Ads

Now, anyone with experience would have noticed that this sounds like a naive plan for two major reasons:

  • One, to make enough money out of ads to support even the leanest of businesses you need a considerable audience (in the ballpark of millions of monthly visitors).
  • Two, visitor growth usually comes gradually. Generally speaking, it takes a long time to reach a considerable audience size in question. This makes growing your audience and ad revenue the most terrible of plans if you need money to pay next month’s bills.

That said, I was aware of these problems and had a plan on how to circumvent them:

  • The first problem emerges because people assume they’ll make most of their money from automatic ads generated from ad networks (most commonly simply a Google AdSense account). In my experience, however, for small and mid-sized websites direct partnerships with an interested advertiser could be a much bigger source of income. If you are such a website, you could bring much more value to your partner than automatic ads, so some advertisers will be willing to pay a premium for an intimate relationship.
  • The second problem assumes that the money needs to come after you have the pageviews. That’s true for advertising networks or affiliate deals: some networks pay up to 4 months after visitors have clicked your ads. With a one-on-one relationship, however, everything is possible with good negotiations (and good intentions). In my case, we signed a long term contract with an upfront payment that would solve our short-term cash problems.

So, how do you get a generous advertising partner?

Know What you’re Offering and to Whom

When people think about making money from ads, they usually think about how to get more viewers for their content first and foremost, and maybe, if they are generous, they think about click-through rates. This, however, disregards a key part of what is a three-way relationship:

advertiser — content — audience.

It’s not a big surprise that to close a deal with an advertising partner, you need to convince them you can create a lot of value for them. In this case, thinking only about audience numbers don’t cut it.

> Content/Audience:

How exactly to grow your audience is a different topic. (If you’re interested in how I did it in this particular case, I wrote a separate post about the content strategy I used to increase our website traffic from 0 to 500k pageviews in 6 months.)

> Audience/Advertiser:

You need to understand intimately the target market of the advertiser. The only businesses that would be willing to go through the trouble and cost of establishing a one on one contractual relationship with you are ones whose target market overlaps almost perfectly with your audience.

Even more importantly, in the case of a one-on-one partnership with the advertiser, you can leverage your own relationship with the audience (this is impossible to do with automatic ads). Think of the advertiser like your sponsor rather than someone who provides ad banners. If your audience respects and values you (and your content), then the advertiser would be willing to pay a premium to associate themselves with you.

That said, this knife cuts both ways — you need to be willing to associate yourself with the advertiser as well, and getting into an intimate relationship with a shady business would hurt your own brand. You don’t have to be a moralist, but you need to make damn sure you’re not a crook.

Content/Advertiser:

Here you would usually think about conversion rates. How good of a job does the piece of content do of selling the products or services advertised? Slapping a banner on top of a piece of content that’s in no way connected to the product or service advertised, of course, works a thousand times worse than creating content that’s directly related to what you’re advertising. If you cannot impress with your audience size, it’s a good idea to try to impress with the potential conversion rates.

Taking this one step further, in a direct relationship with the advertiser you can afford to think about other kinds of intrinsic value your content might have. For example, if the advertiser would be proud to share your content on their own channels, this means you’re creating additional value for their existing customers and the advertiser might be willing to pay more than they would if they were thinking strictly about conversion rates.

Reaching Out

Finding an advertising partner is a B2B sales process not much different from any other:

  • Prospects & Leads: I found which businesses have a good target market overlap with our own audience AND have a history of advertising in our industry. I made a list. (Since my niche is small and the possibilities are most definitely not infinite, I prioritized the list and made sure to personalize the cold out-reach emails as much as possible.)
  • Value proposition: I designed content that would be well received by the community and that has the potential to sell well the services of said advertisers. I drafted a cold outreach email that explains how I can create value for them.
  • Proof: I tested the content in advance and used the positive reception from the audience in the email as proof of my previous statements.
  • Know what you want: I figured out how much I was willing to offer and what I want in return (price, commitments, etc.). This is just as important as all of the above otherwise you’re wasting the time of everyone involved. For example, our financial situation meant I wasn’t interested in affiliate deals. (This information shouldn’t be included in the introductory email. You want to share it after you’ve generated some interest and ideally in a call/meeting to be able to judge the reaction.)
  • Reaching out: Once done, I started sending cold emails to the target businesses. Usually, the rate of people that reply to cold out-reach emails is quite low, yet I wrote to ~15 (well-targeted) businesses as a start and got ~10 responses asking for more details, which automatically showed me I’m onto something.

Securing the deal

Naturally, when I sent the details (what I want in return) I scared most of them away. For example:

“It also seems that you’re asking us to pay $3000 per moth for exposure to ~19,000 users (based on Dec stats). That’s about a $160 CPM rate which is about 50 to 80x higher than what we’d be willing to pay even if there was 100% overlap between your users and regions we supported.“

In this example, I sent a follow-up email trying to explain better my value proposition, but from the text above, it’s quite clear that the person I’m talking to is comparing my offering to an AdSense campaign. This shows that we’re on a different page and it would be very hard to change their mind, so after the follow-up, I didn’t push further. I wouldn’t be able to accomplish something in 5 emails that I wasn’t able to accomplish in 3.

Eventually, however, I got:

”This is a good price, but I need to consult. I will answer you ASAP.
What is your growth plan?”

It’s pretty obvious from “What is your growth plan?” that this person sees the same problem with the numbers as the person from above, but at the same time their positive reactions so far indicate that they are on the same page as me about the value I can create for them. What they are saying is “I like everything so far, but your numbers are low. If you give me a believable growth plan, I might be willing to take the risk and invest in a long-term contract.”

We went back and forth and eventually signed the contract by the end of the month.

Now, this is most certainly not a way to make money that fits all websites. The process is hard and the chances that you would succeed in landing a decently sized contract as a small content publisher requires quite a few stars to align just right. In my case:

  • We had a new brand, a young website, and even though we were small, we were growing. A website with a long history makes it much more difficult to be convincing with the “our traffic is low, but we expect to grow a lot” argument.
  • We had the same audience that some of the biggest advertisers in the industry were after, so what we were offering wasn’t entirely foreign to them. They had at least partially similar contracts with other content producers, albeit usually with a bigger audience.
  • I was able to conceive of a type of content that sounds like a great conversion tool and to prove that it is well-liked by the community.

With less favorable circumstances, most likely everyone will try to make you an affiliate (if an option) and would avoid any financial commitments.

Yet, this doesn’t mean that this isn’t something worth adding to your arsenal. If successful, such a deal could give you the resources and time needed to grow a small business into something worthwhile and to gain a valuable long-term client and partner.

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Kyril “MrNiceGuy” Kotashev

Kyril “MrNiceGuy” Kotashev

Content Marketing Strategist, Writer, Startup Founder, SFF enthusiast: https://mrniceguy.carrd.co/