I’m trying to decide how best to spend my limited advertising budget.
March 23, 2010 4:57 AM   Subscribe

I’m trying to decide how best to spend my limited advertising budget.

First some background information. I run a discussion forum for homeowners of a certain local home builder. There are approximately 10,000 potential users of my forums as that is about the number of homes this builder has in the metro area. On the site, homeowners can discuss general things like how to care for your garden, or more local things with forums dedicated to their specific neighborhood.

I’ve been testing the site with mainly just one neighborhood involved to this point and things are running great. I have about 200 users (homeowners) with many active discussions. To help pay for the site and generate a little extra income for myself, I sell advertising in the form of banner ads to local business. I have about 5 Community Sponsors (advertisers) already signed up and running their ads.

Ok, now for my question. I want to grow my site. I want to market to the rest of the 10,000 homeowners as well as target more businesses. I am planning on doing this via direct mail – postcards. I know the addresses of most all of the 10,000 target homes. I have about $2000 to spend on my initial marketing campaign, but I’m unsure whom to spend my marketing dollars on first. Do I market to my 10,000 homeowners first to generate more activity on the forums? This would certainly make it more attractive to potential advertisers. A very active site would look better. OR do I market to potential advertisers first in order to generate more income to then market to my home owners?

I could see it both ways, which is why I’m asking the interwebs for your suggestions. I’m leaning towards marketing to the homeowners first. This would certainly mean a fairly substantial delay on my return on investment of advertising dollars. I’d delay marketing to selected business until membership and activity ramped up.

Thanks so much for your thoughts!
posted by Jackie_Treehorn to Work & Money (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I suggest you explore the PR opportunities first. Find local media outlets and organisations who might be interested in your story and make a pitch. This costs nothing but time and, if you get picked up, is worth far more than direct marketing. Once you're sure you won't get anything more out of PR, then start spending your dollars carefully. You might consider organising small events with coffee and cookies at each location if there's a rec room. Also... is the builder on board? Maybe you can do some co-marketing on any mailings they do or on their website.

Anyway, the point is: spreading the word about your product or service has many approaches, and traditional advertising is rarely the best one (especially these days) to reach people if you don't have a truly massive budget.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:36 AM on March 23, 2010

Response by poster: seanmpucket:

Good suggestions. The only fear I have about partnering with the home builder is that they may just swoop in and decide to create their own, house run board for their clients. They have deep pockets and it would be really easy for them market to their clients.
posted by Jackie_Treehorn at 5:48 AM on March 23, 2010

That could happen any time anyway, and will become more likely the more popular your own site gets.

Here's another way to look at it: if you're doing it, they don't have to. Why don't you approach them, too, and get them to sponsor you for $large? Get a contract to run it for them with a stipulation that they have no editorial control.

You're on the same dance floor with the devil already... mizewell dance with him so you can keep his hands where you can see them.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:59 AM on March 23, 2010

Have you priced the direct marketing job? $2000 is not going to get you very far. Which means you'll have to do the homeowner campaign in stages. Also a typical mailer will generate 1-3% returns (very roughly). So, even if you do contact all 10,000 homes you wouldn't expect much more activity. A targeted campaign like yours is probably going to get better results. But how much better? 10%, 20%? (If the latter that's pretty amazing for a mailer.)

So, I would suggest a staggered approach.

First, any and all free (or nearly free) PR, your local NPR station for example or local coffee shop counters.

Second, a mailing targeting a sub-set of the owners. If you can find some people in the neighborhood to advocate on your behalf, that would be even better.

Third, some more local business.

Then I would just repeat 2 and 3 simultaneously. You'll likely need to target the same homeowners several times.

(I'm not in marketing but I did work for a direct mail company for a while, these are just intuitions.)
posted by oddman at 6:40 AM on March 23, 2010

I'm not a huge fan of it, but I'd add that if you do eventually go the direct mail route (which has a very low return rate, as oddman notes), that you might consider running a small contest that requires the homeowner to fill out and return the postcard with their email address. You would need to do the postage-paid thing, which might price you out of the game, but it can be much easier to get someone to click through to your site via an email that you send out than to get someone to go to the trouble of sitting down at their computer and typing in the URL. A contest would provide a compelling reason for the homeowner to provide this valuable information and increase the response (however small).

Alternately, you could run a giveaway contest announced via DM that requires the homeowner to go to the site. This could increase traffic (again, however small a return), and you could require the homeowner to provide their email address to enter the contest, again providing you with valuable information and the ability to continue to promote the site in the future to the same homeowner.

States have different rules for running contests, so you would have to check into the details for wherever you are. Adding confirmation that the email addresses would be kept private and not sold is obviously something you'd want to mention on the site and the card as well.
posted by mireille at 7:07 AM on March 23, 2010

Maybe I don’t understand the premise of this (could you put a link to your site on your profile? We could give you a better response or know what you are already doing). I don’t buy into the premise that you should reach potential people to join the forum or forum sponsors with a postcard…at all. So here are some random suggestions to grow the site but they are entirely different than what you are proposing now…apologies if this is not what you are looking for or if I fell off the road.

I think people look for new websites when they are on the internet…not in their mailbox. They also want to “connect” to other people or get really valuable info. So here are some random ideas based on this premise. You may already be doing these things but without seeing your website, this is a guess:

• High quality content (in addition to Bob and Joe the online neighbor in an online forum). Are you connected to a blog? Can you get really high quality type of advice for things that apply to these people? The garden specialist/botanist? A tax specialist (I have no idea what a homeowner needs, but you get the idea). Ideally, either purchase a blog article from a specialist in your home community or give the blog article writer a free link back to their business web page. Or interview the specialist, with a link back to his or her business.

• Higher google rank…(hopefully the above will do this), but people may find your site by googling new home owner plus city or neighborhood. You can pay to have your webpage come up higher according to some search terms. The goal would be however to have great content and hit the things that people want to learn about without needing to pay to have it come out on the top of google eventually.

• Is a social component part of this? Some people may join with the hope of getting to know their new neighbor or people may talk about this to their neighbor and friends if it is valuable. On that note is it part of FB? (The group will occasionally show up on their friend’s webpage, too). Nthing seanmpucket’s suggestion for a coffee event but you could even go beyond that. Invite people to get together for lunch and/or have a specialist talk about a topic. If this also becomes known as having a way to meet the neighbors it may take off. Is there a social part of the forum too?

• (Haven’t looked into these to know if it is by search words but) –there are advertisements on FB. Perhaps put an advertisement that links to a term for the neighborhood if it appears on their profile (I don’t know again if FB advertisements have this feature).

• Pay for a great newsletter that comes out every two months. If it is well done, then ideally people will forward this on to their friends. Things you could put on the newsletter – again great articles that target and help these people. What about coupons? $20 off taxes from your local accountant or $5 off the local grocery story. Welcome to the neighborhood coupons too –something that is valuable to the reader that they will forward it.

• (If you can couple this with a sponsor) What about a really neat contest? Best garden. People submit their garden pictures and a description of what they do/did. Forum members vote on the best garden pictures or advice. The local gardener/botanist/garden store offers free seeds and cool plants as a prize and perhaps personal suggestions to the winners.

How to reach out to businesses that you want to have as sponsors/advertisers?

Nthing seanmpucket’s suggestions for PR. If you can get a really great event organized you write a brief press release. Local papers will cover your event and for free. If you also have small free papers in your community listing events to do, you can submit a form listing your event, time, etc. They may let you list your webpage that could host this, too.

I don’t see a postcard as a useful intro to your forum right now…but down the road if you have the content and a lot of users, team up with other businesses that can be sent to new homeowners. Inside they can have cool coupons and a link to your website with an offer for more coupons and info. That would be useful to remember to log in later – but have lots of things to catch their attention. Or if you do make a newsletter send a free printed copy to the new homeowner.

Got waaaay too sidetracked. Sorry.
posted by Wolfster at 7:08 AM on March 23, 2010

Just a few thoughts:

1.) Postcards won't work well for something this. Postcards get lost among piles of standard mail, and recycled or put aside while people open up more urgent things. Postcards work best when they're some kind of coupon someone will want to put on their fridge; they're horrible for trying to get someone to go online.

However, I understand where you're coming from. You do have the addresses of the exact people you're trying to reach, which is very valuable. Have you considered door hangers? They cost about the same to create and distribute (especially in your case, where the houses are probably all clustered together). Door hangers are larger, they're not mixed with mail, and are all around more likely to get noticed. Make sure to audit the work of the company that is distributing them for you.

2.) With any kind of online forum, you need to reach a certain critical mass before people are going to really start using it. A story: The metal shopping cart was invented by the owner of a store in Oklahoma City, OK in the early 20th century. At first, shoppers were wary and did not know what to make of the contraptions, and avoided them. But that changed as soon as the store owner hired 12 fake "shoppers" to walk around the store pushing the carts. Everyone else just followed their lead, and the rest is history. In the same way, you may need to "seed" your forums by making absolutely sure that you have 20 or so active participants from the start.

3.) This is an unusual business plan. If users start to make negative comments or assertions in your forum (which is not unlikely), keep in mind that you might end up tangling with this homebuilder's legal department.
posted by dacoit at 8:24 AM on March 23, 2010

(Whoops, sorry, I meant 20 active participants in each neighborhood, of course).
posted by dacoit at 8:27 AM on March 23, 2010

This is an interesting question, so I hope you won't mind if I jump back in with two more quick thoughts:

- Instead of a postcard (or flyer) a newsletter -is- a really good idea. Just print it on two sides of colored 11x17 paper, folded over, and have it distributed by hand (dropped off on the doorstep of each home). It would not actually cost much more than having postcards mailed but would be 10 times more effective. Not only could you put interesting articles in there (each with links to more content on the web site), you could sell advertising in it as well.

- Is there a specific reason you're limiting your site's user base to only the owners of a certain homebuilder's homes? Unless the homebuilder makes very unusual homes, I would imagine that most people forget about their homebuilder once they move in, and are much more focused on the idea of their neighborhood -- local issues, schools, etc. Local advertisers are also probably more excited about the idea of reaching a whole neighborhood rather than just the owners of a certain builder's homes.
posted by dacoit at 9:05 AM on March 23, 2010

I don't see any mention of social media. I believe this is an essential component of any marketing strategy today, and it would give you inroads into the homeowner population, since many people will be friends with others in the same developments.

* A blog. This can be something you run yourself, or you could license a content stream from appropriate sources -- e.g. a redecorating column, lawn care, that sort of thing. This gives you new content on your home page (preferably) every day.

* A twitter stream. When you have new content, a twitter post goes out. This lets people who don't use RSS keep up with you.
** Essential: A real person behind the twitter. Watch for conversations and join them or respond to questions, especially if about your site. [example]
*** Learn how to be a successful twitterer: don't see the twitter as an add-on, but your living public face. Talk to people, retweet followers, bind people to your stream. [example]

* A Facebook landing page. Does not need to be elaborate, just a way for people to "fan" you and keep up with the news stream if they don't use Twitter. The goal is to get them to click through to your site, not interact on FB.
** Respond appropriately to people here as well (unlike Nestle).
*** Whatever you do, don't just put something up and neglect it. It has to be active.
posted by dhartung at 9:35 AM on March 23, 2010

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