101biz ladiesLife & Business

biz ladies 09: advertising 101 for small business owners

by Grace Bonney

Hey ladies!

This will be different from my usual once a year post on D*S, because unlike my gift guides, (which are basically just me listing out things that I personally want or already own) – I’m actually a little bit more qualified to talk about this subject. As a digital marketing professional, I manage large-scale search engine marketing & pay-per-click campaigns for clients, and I often work closely with media buyers who manage lots of different types of online ad campaigns. This means I’ve spent many, many hours evaluating, reporting, analyzing, optimizing, and presenting performance data.

In addition, I help Grace run the ad sales team here on D*S. In short, I’ve bought and sold a lot of ads online for people with budgets that range from three to six figures. With that in mind, I’m hoping to share some perspectives on the world of online advertising for you will make it seem a little less scary and confusing.


A lot of the previous Biz Lady columnists have devoted time to showing you all the ways you can promote your business via PR, branding, and elevator pitches. Well, I hope you followed their advice, because this post will be all about how to get started spending money to find new customers. As the header of this paragraph says, your customers are online. How do I know this? Because you’re online. And the chances are good that your customers are a lot like you. So, let’s take a minute to think about where you spend most of your time on the web.

CLICK HERE for the rest of Aaron’s Advertising 101 for Small Biz Owners after the jump!

I bet it’s safe to assume that you spend time on:

  • Social Networking sites: Facebook is obviously the biggest social networking site around. They also offer a simple, self-service advertising platform that lets you target customers based on a whole bunch of factors including geography, gender, age, interests, and even relationship status!
  • Search Engines: Many people know this, and many people don’t: when you search for something on Google (or Yahoo, or Bing), the results you see on the top of the screen or on the right hand side of the page are often “Sponsored Listings” (they’re marked as such). Advertisers pay the Search Engines each time you click on their link. If you choose the searches you want to appear on correctly, these ads are can be highly effective. You can find a great intro to Search Ads on Google right here. The same basic information applies to the other search engines, even though the software is a bit different. You can learn more about the advertising options offered by the major search engines by visiting their advertising pages: Google, Yahoo, and Bing
  • Blogs or other websites: Think about the blogs or sites you read. Almost all of them give you the option to advertise. Contact the ones that seem like the best fit for you and your customers to learn more about the options they offer. Don’t be afraid to send a simple, one-sentence email to any website that says, “I’m new to online advertising, but would love to learn more about the options that you offer.” If they don’t respond or if they do anything that makes you feel dumb, they’re NOT WORTH YOUR HARD EARNED MONEY. Remember, they should be TRYING to sell you and teach you everything you need to know to make a decision to buy, and that gives you buying power. Don’t be afraid to use it. Don’t like their prices? Make them a counter-offer and see what happens. Many sites will say no, but some will say yes or will at least negotiate with you. It’s a buyers market out there. Really.

Are you with me so far? If so, you now at least know where to go to buy an ad online. Not bad!


Don’t assume that once you buy an ad, everything else magically works out. You need to decide if you want people to:

  • Learn some information (such as an event next week)
  • -Measure using: the number of impressions (or pageviews) your ad received

  • Just come to your site (for new companies or publications looking to build traffic)
  • -Measure using: the number of clicks your ad received

  • Take a specific action (buy something, register for your newsletter, most of us fall into this category)
  • -Measure using: number of actions, action value, cost-per-action (spend divided by actions)

The results of these decisions should guide every aspect of the rest of your campaign, from where you advertise, to what you put in your ad. Make sure that each element serves your ultimate campaign goal in some way – otherwise it’s not helping.

Pitfall to avoid: Trying to do all three at once. This leads to unclear campaigns which gives you data that’s really hard to analyze. (“Well, we got a lot of impressions, some clicks, and one sale…is that good?” Maybe!) If you really need all three things to happen, consider running a separate for each of your goals. It will make your life much easier when you’re trying to evaluate the results.


If you want to be a successful online advertiser, you’re going to have to learn some of the terminology. There’s no way around it. The good news is it really isn’t that hard. Here are some basics just to get them out of the way:

Impression: An ad “impression” happens when your ad is displayed in a browser on the screen. Every time you go to a web page, and there are ads on the page, each of those advertisers just got 1 impression.

Click thru Rate (CTR): This rate tells you how successful your ad is at getting people to click it. It’s calculated by dividing the number of clicks your ad received by the number of impressions it received. The industry average CTR is approximately 0.1% (Yes, that’s one tenth of one percent. (Pretty low, right? But think about it – how many ads do you see online every day, and how many do you actually click on?) For more info on average CTRs, look here.

Destination URL: This is the page your ad sends someone to when they click on it.

Call-to-Action (CTA): This is and the part of a web page or ad that tells the viewer exactly what you want them to do. It often takes the form of a “button” of some sort that says something like “CLICK HERE”, “BUY NOW”, or “ADD TO CART.” You’d be surprised at how effective they are.

Conversion: This is a fancy way of saying your “desired action” that you want a user to do once they’ve clicked on your ad and arrived on your site (ex, buy something, fill out a form, register for a newsletter).

As you move through the world of learning more about advertising online, you’re going to encounter many more terms that may sound strange or confusing. Don’t ever be afraid to ask what someone means, or just Google “what does _____ mean?” You won’t be the first, and you’ll find there are LOTS of sources to tell you anything you need to know.


Unless your name is Don Draper, creating the perfect ad is not an exact science. The tricky part is creating an ad that fits in to the overall look, but stands out enough to be noticed. Just be sure to remember:

  • The site(s) on which your ad will appear
  • The information you want your ad to convey (a sale, a product, a service)
  • What you want your customers to do once they click on their ad?
  • Why should your customers want to do the thing you’re asking them to do? Does your ad offer them something of value to their lives? Chances are that it does, but it’s your job to communicate that to them.
  • Do you have a special offer or promotion? Do you think people might like to know about that BEFORE they get to your site?

Common Pitfalls:

  • Over-emphasizing your logo in your ad. If no one’s ever heard of your business, why should they care about your logo, no matter how cool it is? Show them what you have that you think they might want. They’ll see your logo when they get to your site.
  • Making an ad that’s too blinky and annoying. I can’t stand when people do this, and I’m in advertising! An annoyed click is unlikely to become a happy customer.


  • Pick a dollar amount you’re willing to spend on your first 30-day test to gather some data. (You can do any number of days; 7, 14, 60, or 90 days. I personally like 30 because it takes a little bit of the immediate pressure off and gives your ad some time to make things happen.)
  • Choose a site (or sites) where you’ll run your first campaigns
  • Create your ad. If you have no idea how to do this, try any or all of the following:
  • -Email all your friends and ask them if they can recommend an inexpensive graphic designer you can hire to build an ad. If you’re reading this site, chances are you know someone who knows someone.
    -Post something about it on Twitter, Facebook, or whatever social networking sites you use.
    -Try Craigslist. You can find anything on there.

  • Set up a Google Analytics account. If you have no idea how to do this, follow the exact same procedure listed above to create an ad.
  • -If you are trying to track orders, sales, or signups, be sure to set up Goal Tracking as part of the installation process so you can see how many “actions” you got.

  • Go!

    How should I know?? (Sorry, I’ve just always wanted to say that in a client meeting.) Once you’ve run your test and gathered the data, you should be able to assess your results by considering the following (warning, more jargon below):

    1. Your Conversion Rate: This rate tells you what percentage of the people who actually clicked on your ad and did the thing you wanted them to do. It’s one of the most important pieces of data you’ll get.
    2. Your ROI (Return on Investment): This is one of the other most important pieces of data you will use to assess your results. It’s calculated by dividing the amount of money you made (if you can’t track the total number, you can estimate it based on your average order value), by the amount of money you spent. If the resulting number is less than one (negative ROI), you lost money. If it’s one (flat ROI), you broke even. If it’s greater than one (positive ROI), you made money.

    Some questions to ask yourself when reviewing the results:

    • Did my ad successfully attract clicks? Look at your CTR, think about what sites you advertised on, when you advertised, and what your ad looked like.
    • Did the clicks turn into actions? This is your conversion rate. Think about this: does the Destination URL keep the promise that your ad makes? Did your ad even make a promise? If not, what did you expect people to do once they clicked on your site? Did you have a CTA? Remember to give your customers a clear and simple path to get where you want them to go.

    A good amount of data to evaluate your campaign is:

    • At least 100-200 clicks on your ad, depending on how much your action costs the customer (really expensive products may take much more to generate a sale, filling in an email address doesn’t cost much and should take fewer clicks)
    • At least a few hundred thousand impressions to make sure you have enough data to judge the CTR performance of an ad. One note: Google Analytics won’t tell you how many Impressions your ad got, just how many clicks (and hopefully actions). You’ll have to get the number of Impressions from the publisher you bought the ad from. Anyone who’s willing to take your money for an ad should be able to tell you (or show you) how many Impressions your ad got. Smaller blogs may just need to give you their pageviews for the time period you were advertising. Assuming you’re not paying too much for the ad, that’s usually fine.
    • One caveat: that these data “sample sizes” are more for small businesses just starting out with their very first ads running on smaller sites. Experienced online advertisers often want a lot more impressions and clicks before drawing any conclusions.


    Quite a lot, really. You can change where you advertise, what size ads you run, where your ads go on the page, the ad itself, the offer, the destination URL, the content on the page the destination URL leads to, the layout of the page the destination URL leads to, the CTA, and a lot more. Small changes in any one of these factors can make a big difference in your conversion rate, which can dramatically impact your ROI. Experiment with changes in all of the above. You’ll never know what the key factor is until you’ve tried everything.


    • How much should I spend? – There are enough sites and options out there that you can basically spend as much as you want. Just start with a figure you’re personally comfortable with the idea of investing. And don’t kid yourself; online advertising is an active investment, and one that involves time and effort as well as money. And whenever you invest in something, there’s always an element of risk involved. Mentally prepare for the possibility that you could lose some money the first few campaigns you run. Remember that along with the risk comes the potential for great success. Commit to reviewing the results, continually making changes and experimenting with new approaches. After awhile, you will begin to figure out works for your business. You should be looking for the right combination of ad design (also called “creative”), sites to advertise on, offers to promote, and the pages to which you direct your ads. The best online marketers view advertising as an ongoing testing and learning process.
    • How are all of my competitor’s ads doing compared to mine? In the words of the fake Joy Behar from SNL, “So what? Who cares?” Honestly, how will that information help you? It won’t. Like exercise, the concept of “personal best” is highly useful. So use it. Strive to beat YOUR last campaign, not theirs.
    • How often should I look at my data? Pay attention, but unless you’re a full time marketer, try not to get obsessed. When you’re just starting out, I’d say check your data every week or so, and don’t make changes to your campaign more than once a week.
    • What should my Conversion Rate be? As frustrating as it is to hear, there’s really no right answer other that, whatever it needs to be in order for your campaign to have a positive ROI. Again, think personal best, and keep plugging away. At first, the number you should be most concerned about is your overall ROI. If you’ve run several ad campaigns, carefully reviewed the data and considered all the factors listed above, and you’re still just breaking even or losing money after a few campaigns – it might be time to consider the possibility that there’s a larger issue with your website. Could it also be your products or your prices? Of course, but from what I’ve seen, the website your customer ends up on is one of the key factors in any successful online advertising campaign. [On that note, on behalf of all marketers, I’d like to publicly request that Grace have someone write a Biz Lady column on website design and user experience for small businesses. You’re welcome, Grace! AC]

    I wish I could say that was all you needed to know about online advertising, but as the title of this post says, these are just the basics. There are many, many more things to learn about and consider, but even having the basics down will but you WAY AHEAD of most of the competition.

    Good luck to all of you. I’ll try to answer questions in the comments section, but it may take me some time to get to them. Thanks for listening! In the meantime, if you’re looking for more interesting articles about online marketing, you can read many more articles by the really smart people I work with at my agency’s blog here.

    Suggested For You


    • Are you kidding me? You didn’t charge for this? Design*Sponge is officially my favorite blog! Thank you for sharing this information with the rest of us and not charging for it- your generosity does not go unnoticed.

      Karine @ HappyGirl

    • Ok, so I’m not a Biz “Lady”, but a Biz “Guy” and this is the most helpful thing I’ve ever read on this site. Thanks for writing one that the guys can enjoy, AC.

    • The fact that you’re not charging for this is CRAZY!

      But CRAZY good for us- thanks so much for always sharing information with us and not asking for a dime. It does not go un-noticed. THANK YOU.


    • um…i think i can cancel my business adviser appt tomorrow and just use this for the next year. WOW. thanks for laying it all out on the line.


    • Thank you. Especially for the pointers on common pitfalls – that was exactly where I was thinking of heading before reading your post.

    • Thank you so much for all the thoughtful advice!
      Sometimes I get lost in all the different options out there and want to try them all. It’s a good idea to just be patient! Wait, wasn’t that a virtue or something! Haa!
      I love your visual references too!

      Again, Thank you so much for your time and effort in writing this extremely helpful post!

    • WOW! Thank you so much! I’m in the beginning stages of creating my stationery business, and all of this info is fantastic! I’m also currently working as an SEO writer for a travel Web site, so I totally understand the importance of an online presence!

      THANK YOU!!! :)

    • The generosity of spirit and proffered hand of mentorship that’s exhibited in the sharing of this information (and throughout this series) is amazing! Thank you so much for sharing it’s very much appreciated…

    • Just what I have been looking for! Thank you so much for taking the time and being clear on this subject matter. Your advice is greatly appreciated! It’s really great to see people give advice so nicely and are so willing to help one another.

    • Both of these biz ladies posts today are sooo incredibly helpful and wonderful. I’ve already forwarded the links to a couple of friends. Really appreciate your time in sharing this bevy of information!

    • What a great post! I’ve been going through the process of trying to choose the right venues to advertise on, and this is a great primer on the nuts & bolts of the process. Thanks!

    • whoa. this is so comprehensive, i have to come back for round two later on. thanks so much for all work you put into this! it really is helpful and sooo useful!

    • Solid information presented in an entirely LIKE-able way. can i hire YOU to tell me what to do, Aaron? i ESPECIALLY appreciated where you said that anyone who makes us feel the slightest bit stupid is not worth our hard-earned money : )
      that’s my biggest apprehension as an artist fairly new to marketing my work.
      already love grace – now love you too.

    • Thanks so much for all this valuable information. I’ve been wanting to invest in some ads, and wanted to do it in a smart way, but was a little overwhelmed at knowing where to start. This advice is perfect.

    • i just finished a 12 week business course tonight and have been emailing these posts to all of my classmates…..everyone was so appreciative of the info (here & on all the biz lady posts). Just want to say thank you for sharing all this great info w/ us!

    • nice (and humorous) way to explain the tips :). am still fiddling with the analytics goal tracking though..
      am absorbing the info rgd PR, branding and the elevetor pitch.
      thank you.

    • I am wowed by your entire site! I just found it via a friend of mine and I am definitely hooked. This article was extremely helpful and informative. I and many of my friends are dipping our toes in the world of blogging. When the time is right, I’ll definitely be referring to this article. In the meanwhile, I think I’ll try a few of your DIY projects…Bravo on a great site.

    • The Biz Lady posts are so incredibly inspiring- thank you for all that this blog is doing for creative people! And thank you AC!
      When is the book co written by Grace and AC about kicking butt and taking names in the design world coming out?
      I want to read it.

    • This is a great guide to paid internet advertising. I’m a firm believer in organic search rankings… next biz ladies guide should be for search engine optimization. Showing up organically in search engines is good for conversions.

    • Thank you, “AC”, you are the BEST. I love your wife, but you are now my new favorite blogger at Design*Sponge ;)

    • You have no idea how PERFECT THIS TIMING IS. I have been struggling with online ads for so long and now feel like I have a more realistic idea of what to expect. Thank you for laying it all on the line!!!!

      **Miss O**

    • I run a small photography business and even though I’m not quite ready to jump into advertising YET, this is definitely going to be my go-to guide when I do. Thanks so much, AC.

    • This is so great, thanks “AC”! You guys have to be the most giving couple on the internet :)


    • Advertising always seems pretty scary to me but I feel like I can tackle this now- many THANKS! :-)

    • From a Biz “Guy”:

      Thanks for breaking this down and not making us pay for this- I would have hired a consultant to do this but now I can put that money towards making my first ad “creative”. Thanks!

      Ted (aka- Twis-Ted)

    • I can’t get over how helpful this is- I’m only halfway through the article and I already have enough to keep me busy for months! Thank you!

    • I’d like to echo what everyone else has been saying: A BIG THANK YOU to AC and to Grace (and all the other contributors) for putting all this together. I am very, very grateful :)

    • Thank you ever so much for a really good example and explaination of the elevator pitch. I look forward to sharing it with icrfat.ca seller bootcamp participants!

    • We have loved advertising on Design*Sponge over the past 18 months for reasons this post makes so clear: you have all been amazingly helpful at getting our little boho furniture store into the world of online advertising in such a caring user-friendly way… Thanks for everything you are doing to support small, local and creative – including teaching us to advertise!!!!

    • This has been unbelievably helpful. Thank you so much for taking the time explain the process and terms and everything. You should write a book or something! (And as a professional editor, trust me, I don’t say that to a lot of people.)

    • this is really great info, and i know it opens WORLDS of information for those who may not have been privvy before, but i feel a huge section that may help a substantial number of small biz owners who may not have a lot to spend is to explain the ‘long tail’ of search.

      for anyone who sees this comment – when engaging in paid search engine marketing (SEM) and deciding on what keywords and search queries you want your ad to show up on, try to think as concise as possible. for example, rather than buying a general keyword “handmade goods” where there might be a ton of competitors buying on that same term (thus driving up the price since it’s an auction pricing model and causing YOU to pay more), be more specific and perhaps buy the term “handmade ceramic plates” or maybe “hand knit mug cozies.” chances are, while your competition is out there battling on price for real general-type terms, there’s only a few folks out there (or maybe just you, if you’re lucky!) who are buying on those more specific terms. as a general rule, the top 1 – 3 paid search positions on the major engines (Google, Yahoo) typically have crazy inflated prices, you can strive to achieve much more INTERESTED and QUALIFIED buyers (and at a MUCH cheaper cost) by being very concise with the keywords you are buying and by cumulatively aiming for positions lower than 1 (first position). Also think of it this way – the wider you cast your net (the more general your search term is), the more people you capture (costs more $$$), but not all of them are going to interested in your specific product. rather, cast a more narrow net for those who show interest in EXACTLY what you’re selling (costs less $), and chances are the majority (if not all) the eyes you capture are interested in EXACTLY what you are selling.

      hope this helps!

    • thanks so much for sharing this info! My boss asked me if we should be doing search engine ads and I had to go look around online for info, but this is far better than anything I had already found. Love the humor about a subject that could also be presented in a very dry way. Kudos for working in the beastie boys somehow, too!

    • Perfect! I often skip placing ads on sites who use lots of lingo in their media kits- now I don’t have to! Major, major thanks.

    • Great info. I have been in marketer for years and this is one of the best guidelines I have seen on the “basics” for online advertising and marketing. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thank you, thank you, thank you! This couldn’t have come at a better time :) I created my first ad last night, and I am really happy with it!!!

    • Thanks for the perfect ideas! I am fairly new at this and feel like everyone else must know way more than me. Now I’m not afraid to show my “newness” and I’ll be sure to ask questions when figuring out advertising venues. You’re right…if they are not helpful they don’t need my business! Isn’t that the way it should be?

    • Thanks so much for reminding us that we–the advertisers–should not be made to feel little as we hand over our hard-earned money. And also that success does not happen immediately. (Must remember that one.)

      Such affirming advice. :)

    • wow I’m so happy that there are ppl out there just like me ..wth same goals , questions , fears and lack of expereince.. this is so helpful thanks alot for sharing it!

    • Oh my, great, great information. I feel I am always spinning my wheels while I am online trying to figure out what I need to do to get my shop out there, I feel so computer illiterate. I will have to study, study this information. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    • Excellent article and the timing couldn’t be more perfect! I really appreciate all the helpful info. Thanks!

    • Although I am reading this article 6 years after its publication but believe me this is best info about the Facebook ads I have ever read. Very much appreciated, if you have any other guide on Design Sponge then please do share :)