Where the Readers Are: University Presses Explore Online Advertising

University press marketing and advertising staff are expanding their ventures into the realm of online advertising. With an ever-expanding variety of options, from Facebook ads for dollars a day to leaderboards on the websites of renowned print publications, it can be overwhelming to know where to begin. AAUP spoke with staff at three member presses to get an idea of how member presses of various sizes are evaluating and investing in these new opportunities.

While presses are experimenting with different approaches, one common theme was their initial reason for moving into online advertising: following their customers. Dafina Blacksher Diabate, Advertising Manager at Duke University Press, described Duke's use of online advertising as "a matter of meeting the readers where they are." Figuring out exactly where those readers are online, however, is a less obvious matter. One of the biggest challenges for presses just entering the online realm is the seemingly infinite venues well beyond online versions of the print publications they have traditionally advertised in.

Particularly when advertising scholarly titles, Diabate has found that a good amount of research time is required to evaluate the various options, although she has found it worth it in the end. Duke has advertised in a variety of online formats, but one that Diabate feels is particularly effective is the e-newsletter. As such newsletters are opt-in forms of communication, readers have chosen to receive it and have a confirmed interest in whatever the targeted subject matter might be. She especially prefers ad placement at the top of these newsletters, which ensures that the ad is seen even by those who do not scroll down to read the whole message.

Baylor University Press, which Associate Director and Product and Sales Manager Nicole Smith Murphy says began to think more strategically about online advertising in the summer of 2009, has found success with small, targeted campaigns. Baylor focuses particularly on "pay-per-click ads within Facebook, Google AdWords, Twitter promotions and announcements, and blocks of advertising within [their] own e-newsletters."

Murphy described a shift away from their original tendency to view books with wider general reader appeal as the best candidates for online advertising. She has found that as scholarly societies, institutions, and publications have become more web savvy, targeting specific groups has become more feasible and beneficial. The press recently ran a Facebook ad for Liberalism without Illusions: Renewing an American Christian Tradition by Christopher Evans, targeting "users who identified a likeness for or an affiliation with several key liberal to progressive divinity schools and seminaries." Spending under $400, the press has received 742,986 impressions of the book's cover with brief copy and received 865 click-throughs – results Murphy classifies as "hard to match in print publications."

Florida has pursued online advertising since 2006, and has used a variety of formats including web sites, newsletters, Facebook ads, and Google AdWords (which they found to not be adequately targeted for their purposes). This year, they will also be trying a regional take on web advertising, participating in the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance's "Circle of Sites" promotion, which will place their ad on the sites of "approximately 45 independent bookstores for a week."

The possibility of targeting advertising to ever more granular groups of readers is an aspect of online advertising where presses have taken different approaches. Florida "consistently seek[s] the most targeted media and placement for our advertising," only opting for generalized placement when dictated "by the media itself." Diabate however, is sometimes wary of targeting that can be too narrow, in the cases of niche sites, which might have fewer general visitors.

On the design side, production of online ads brings its own challenges, particularly when ad design is done, or brought, in-house. Amy Harris, Advertising and Direct Mail Manager at the University Press of Florida, explained that when the press moved to designing web ads in-house last year, some challenges became evident, as "most of the process—from image management to layout to proof—is slightly different from print design and may require knowledge of a separate suite of design programs." When Duke added an in-house ad designer, they made sure to include banner ad design as part of the hiring criteria.

The increased restrictions on design for the web in comparison to print are a concern that can add to the work of creating an online ad, as designers must use web-safe colors, fonts, and formats, and ensure that the ad will display correctly in an array of browsers. At Duke, size limits on some banner ads have caused the press to alter their approach.

Diabate noted that she found the shorter lifetime of online ads to be a drawback, in contrast to print ads, which she finds more "researchable," as readers are able to refer back to a publication long after its initial release.

Among the presses interviewed, there seems to be a consensus that while online advertising is inevitably becoming a larger portion of the overall advertising budget, they do not see print advertising disappearing in the near future. At Florida, Harris has found that directly attributable sales were "roughly the same" for print and web ads when tracked through discount codes. The challenge at the moment, Duke's Diabate says, is "finding a happy medium." Harris explains that she sees "the butter being spread ever thinner on the bread...the truth is, we reach our customers through both formats. The key will be to judiciously choose our outlets." This is, in a sense, a balancing act that advertising departments have been dealing with for years, but the pool of possible venues continues to grow.

While the data-gathering potential of online advertising, such as tracking views and click-throughs, has its appeal, presses say it is not generally a driving choice behind their advertising choices. Harris explained that the most important reason for moving to web ads is "following our customers," but metrics like click-throughs do offer a "measure of the audience's engagement with advertising, so they should be taken into account in any well-run promotion."

Murphy believes that online advertising can work for even the smallest of presses, and advises those considering testing the waters to "just set aside a little money and start doing it." The small scale of some options allows for close monitoring and tweaking when necessary – she found that two of the most important components were having a "good landing page" for links (your website or another retailer) and ensuring that those links are functional. Baylor typically "set[s] an initial limit of $20 per day" for their campaigns, and after a few days either refines the message or ups the per diem, a process that Murphy describes as "quite helpful on-the-job education."

The field of online advertising is still very much in development, and for this reason Diabate sees an opportunity for publishers to play an important role in the way it develops. Saying, "we're forging into uncharted territory," she feels that marketing instincts still play an important role, and that for university presses, it is "worth being in on the conversation," helping publications to understand where scholarly publishers are coming from.

Harris advises presses: "Don't be (too) afraid. With careful planning, the right tools, and a little training you'll find that online advertising is manageable and worthwhile." As Murphy emphasized, "With online ads, your potential readers are only one click away from being able to make a purchase."

A number of publications within the AAUP Cooperative Advertising Program have begun offering discounted rates on their online advertising rates to AAUP members. Learn more here: http://www.aaupnet.org/members/advertising/index.html

Meredith Benjamin
Communications Coordinator, AAUP