The $20 ad campaign: small businesses find alternatives to Google AdWords

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Gerald Gorman, who runs online businesses like Lawyer.com, pays Google $100,000 a month to place ads near search results and on Google’s partner sites. While the ads have proved effective at attracting customers, their growing price tag has led Gorman to look around for alternatives.

In the past, Gorman would have been out of luck. That’s because, despite the internet’s rapid growth, most small and medium businesses had few viable online ad options beyond Google or Bing. This is changing, however, as upstart ad companies tap into new publishing tools and social media to offer effective online campaigns for as low as $20 a pop.

In Gorman’s case, he laid down $1000 on two such companies, Outbrain and Virurl, and was delighted with the results. While he pays as much as $10 for a customer to click on one of this Google ads, he found he paid 8 cents and 5 cents at the other sites and also earned a surge of traffic.

This may sound too good to be true but, for the growing number of businesses priced out of Google Adwords,  it could be the real deal.

A new type of advertising: how it works

Instead of buying a search keyword like they do with Google Adwords, advertisers like Lawyer.com can pay Outbrain and Virurl to act as distributors for their messages. They supply the message in the form of a link to a piece of content — a picture, a story or a video. Outbrain and Virurl then spray the link across the web via third party publishers and on social media sites like Tumblr and Twitter.

Compared to Google Adwords, the upstart services are remarkable for their simplicity: Outbrain and Virurl provide a website for the advertiser to upload a content link, and to set a budget and duration for the ad campaign. While Outbrain has traditionally worked with publishers to augment and monetize their traffic, it recently added an advertising tool called Amplify for small and medium businesses.  Here are screenshots of how the purchase process looks:

Here’s Outbrain: 

Here’s Virurl: 

The advertiser can use a credit card to get the campaign up and running almost immediately compared to the 5 days that Gorman says it takes for Google to approve content (the delay is important for brands that want to jump on time-sensitive ad opportunities like Big Bird). As for the money, the advertiser’s allocated budget is depleted every time someone clicks on the link; some of the money goes to the publisher who hosts the ad and the rest goes to the distributors — in Gorman’s case, to Outbrain or Virurl. The distributors also share real-time analytics that let the advertiser monitor the campaign.

To be clear, the two would-be Adwords-competitors have different business models. Outbrain is bigger and works primarily with major publishers, including premium ones like CNN and Time, to find augment traffic or to find spots for ad-driven content. Virurl, on the other hand, is aimed at getting ad content to go viral on social networks like Twitter where “influencers” retweet the links and are paid for clicks. But, from a small business perspective, the underlying strategy is the same: find ad content that people want to see and pay to distribute it.

Gorman notes that the young ad companies’ geographic targeting isn’t as good as Google (“you can target down to the lamp post with Google AdWords”) but that they do permit users to choose between US and oversees viewers. He also says they have been forthcoming about fraudulent clicks and will refund money for suspicious traffic.

What it means for businesses: a scramble for quality content

The advent of cheap, easily managed ad campaigns is good news for companies like Lawyer.com. But there is, of course, a catch.To sign up for these distribution networks, a company can’t just show up with 20 bucks — it also needs to have a piece of content that people want to see.

“We spend a lot on screening. We’re pretty fanatical about taking on only quality,” said Outbrain CEO Yaron Galai by phone, explaining that the company rejects half of all would-be clients. He added that advertisers like GE are producing “wonderful content” such as a video interview with the inventor of the LED. Media companies looking to acquire more traffic to meet ad needs are also logical customers for Outbrain.

In the case of Lawyer.com, Gorman said the site produces quality original content that suits Outbrain. But what about other small companies? Galai said small, non-media companies are unlikely to have the capacity to produce quality content and their best bet is to use “earned media” like reviews or press mentions. If they are ambitious, they could of course still try to make Outbrain’s quality cut; a bakery might, for instance, start a cupcake or recipe blog.

Virurl, which was featured at a Paley Media Center’s “Next Big Thing” event, is less finicky about the content it sends out. But the social advertising start-up likewise uses a quality control process to weed out junky ads.

“A human in our Santa Monica office, views the content and either approves or rejects it. We will never drive anyone to a product page or anything that is spammy or a clear ad … The underlying philosophy is that – If the advertiser put enough thought into tapping into human emotion it will likely be approved,” wrote CEO Francisco Diaz-Mitoma in an email message.

The bottom line is that the new ad distributors offer small businesses a low-cost way to get their brands before huge numbers of potential customers — provided they have the ingenuity to make or earn quality content. The people who see the ad content may not have the same “intent-level” as those who click on Google search ads but, for now, the price advantage mean companies like Outbrain and Virurl could one day emerge as viable competitors to Google.

(Image by Monkey Business Images via Shutterstock)

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