7 Things I Learned From 175,000 Eyes And A Failed Ad

Through an interesting turn of events, I was given an opportunity to place an ad for my Backbone Plugins eBook in a very prominent web development newsletter – one that has 175,000 subscribers. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance. Unfortunately, the chance did not reciprocate the jumping. It was more of a laughing and pointing. In fact, it kicked me in the stomach while it was laughing at me crying under my desk. I seriously wasted this opportunity… and honestly, I’m not sure I got any really valuable lessons out of it. But I did get a few things from it. Hopefully they’ll be meaningful and helpful to someone else. 

The Ad

I spent several hours crafting the ad image, getting feedback, redesigning it and using my existing marketing material as the basis for the ad. After tweaking it to what I thought was perfection, this is the ad I ran with:

Backboneplugins ad

The Numbers

As I mentioned before, the email newsletter that this ad was placed in has 175,000 subscribers. That’s a lot of eye balls to put on this ad. The list in question also has a touted click rate for ads of anywhere from 0.5% to 2.5%. That’s pretty good, from what I hear. And I figured that if I could hit 1% click rate, I would get 1,750 views on my landing page. If my previous conversion rate of near 6% would hold for sales once people were on the page, I would have roughly 100 sales. At $22 per sale (after fees), that would be a nice little income of over $2K. This sounded like a no-brainer for me. 

What I actually got was … basically nothing. My has had 169 unique visitors today. This is up by about 40 from the previous day, when I did not have this ad in front of 175,000 people. It’s about double my usual traffic, too. But this number did not translate well from what I hoped was going to be up to 1,750 views.

The conversion rate for this traffic was 5 sales (1 of which happened well before the ad ran) to 169 unique visitors… that’s about 2.95% conversion rate. This isn’t the 6% that I held for February but this is a good conversion rate. If I could hold steady at around 3% conversions and increase my traffic by 10 times, I would be golden. But my traffic isn’t 10x this. It’s 169 unique visitors.

So I come away from the day with next to no traffic increase, and a conversion rate that isn’t even a statistical bump – it’s within my site’s normal course of sales to have as many as 7 sales in one day. Today was only 5 sales, total. 

I call this a failure. I didn’t get a bump in traffic. I didn’t get a bump in sales. I expected more. I don’t know what I did wrong, but I have some ideas. Hopefully these ideas will help others avoid the same failure I had. 

Lesson: Be Careful With % Click Numbers 

When a website or newsletter tells you that they get a % range of clicks for ads, you should assume that you’ll be on the low end. Do the calculations for cost vs potential payback based on the the low end. In my case, the stated low end was 0.5% click through. In reality, I think I got less than 0.05% click through. Even if I had received 0.5% click through, I would have received a significant boost in my site’s traffic. I did not receive even the low end of traffic. The click %’s were completely off for me, perhaps because of other problems.

Lesson: Target The Specific Audience

One of the failures I see in my ad is that I was still focused on my target audience: developers. The newsletter in question may have developers on it, but it most likely has a broader, more generalized collection of people interested in the web and websites. The issue that I appeared in, for example, dealt with a wide variety of topics surrounding websites – from development, to ideas and even a website about weather information. It was clearly not targeted at developers, which is what my ad was targeted toward.

Lesson: More Eyes Does Not Mean More Clicks

This goes back to the target audience, again. Just because you get your ad in front of 175,000 potential eyes, doesn’t mean you’ll get a spike in traffic. If you’re advertising squirt bottles full of ketchup to an upper class group of people that only wear pure white clothing… well, good luck. Having more eyes on your ad doesn’t always translate in to more clicks and traffic. Understanding the target audience and being able to speak to their needs is critical. 

Lesson: Prominent Placement Doesn’t Mean Anything

I was the first ad in the newsletter… the first of 4. This should be the prime spot for an ad, as far as I know. It’s the first ad that people see. But once again, if your ad isn’t targeted at your specific audience, having prominent placement doesn’t mean anything.

Lesson: Without Context, Great Advice Is Just Advice

I spoke with several people who have a strong history of selling and advertising, and got feedback from them on my ad design. Everyone gave me great feedback and suggestions to improve what I had. In the end, I had at least one person that I respect a lot say it looked very professional and they expected great results from the ad. Without understanding the complete context of the target audience, even the best advice for ads can fall flat.

I don’t know if it was just the target audience problem, but the ad that everyone said was good ended up being a failure. Perhaps the call to action was wrong. Maybe I should have stuck with my original call to action. Perhaps the wording is incorrect for the target audience. Am I speaking the language of the reader and pointing out something they care about? Or am I simply spouting what I believe is important? These questions are hard to answer without doing more research on the audience and then doing A/B testing on ad variations – none of which I can do.

Lesson: Fail With Friends

I’m lucky in that I have a group of close friends in a mastermind group. Both John Sonmez and Josh Earl were extremely supportive in my effort to build the ad and in my struggle to not be depressed about the poor performance of the ad. If you’re going to experiment and face failures like this, you need to have a strong support network.

Final Lesson: Advertising Is Hard

There’s no two ways about it. It’s just plain hard. You might think you have a magic formula, or at least enough feedback to help you find the right spot to be. But when it comes down to the day of execution, all of the formula in the world might not mean a hill of beans. Advertising is a horribly difficult, frustrating experience. Be prepared for failure. Find ways to fail fast, cheap and with measurable results. 

About Derick Bailey

Derick Bailey is an entrepreneur, problem solver (and creator? :P ), software developer, screecaster, writer, blogger, speaker and technology leader in central Texas (north of Austin). He runs SignalLeaf.com - the amazingly awesome podcast audio hosting service that everyone should be using, and WatchMeCode.net where he throws down the JavaScript gauntlets to get you up to speed. He has been a professional software developer since the late 90's, and has been writing code since the late 80's. Find me on twitter: @derickbailey, @mutedsolutions, @backbonejsclass Find me on the web: SignalLeaf, WatchMeCode, Kendo UI blog, MarionetteJS, My Github profile, On Google+.
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  • Jesper Kamstrup Linnet

    No wonder – all the subscribers must be one-eyed to only have 175000 eyes :-P

    • lol! I knew I shouldn’t have gone with the 3d ad! :P

  • Yea, I’ve never been able to get ads to have nearly the click-through rate that you’re supposed to expect. Maybe try advertising in JavaScript Weekly?

  • Jens Bettermann

    Maybe you should have styled your Call to Action as some kind of button. Poeple like to click on buttons.

  • The no tichie

    I think your site head logo page isn’t very appropriate. The title and the image (a donkey with glasses) is a little offensive for Mexican people and for all people who speaks spanish. I like your site and your articles, but not your logo. Can you image a similar site with a logo like ‘The tecnos, We speak código’ and a cowboy with face of donkey?. By the way, I’m from Spain, the first country that explored Texas in 1519.

  • Just another developer

    Derick, big fan of your work, but I have one piece of advice to share here.

    Here it comes: never, at any point in your marketing campaigns, write copy that might be insulting or offensive to your audience.

    We all copy and paste at some point. Many times copy and paste makes sense, but many other times we do that because we’re lazy or incompetent in the face of the problem we’re trying to solve (i.e. we’re learning).

    Telling your entire audience that they’re wasting their time copying and pasting can feel insulting. It certainly did to me.

    I read “Stop being incompetent, learn from me because I’m so good”.

    Golden rule of marketing a product:
    User says: “This product is so great”

    BUT, platinum rule of marketing a product:
    User says: “I’m so cool!”

    And you’ve basically broken the platinum one.

    I bought your backbone screencasts, but this banner annoyed me to the point that I didn’t even consider clicking it for a moment, because clicking it would validate the thought that you’re conveying, i.e. that I’m incompetent.

    Just my 0,02

    • now that’s the kind of feedback i was looking for! thank you! this is definitely something i’ll keep in mind next time around.

      • Just another developer

        I’m very glad to hear you find the feedback useful Derick. Imho, a much better approach would be to convey positive messages, i.e. easy examples are “become a backbone pro”, “learn backbone in X days” or any other cheap but effective and positive line, instead of a negative message like “stop wasting time” or “you’re doing it wrong” (yeah, I saw another marketing campaign with that punchline, not really that attractive!)

        I’m far from a marketing guy, in fact my focus is development, but I acknowledge there’s an entire art to learning how to properly market ourselves, our products and our services and I try to learn from the masters, just like I do with development.

        Good luck with everything and keep up the great work!

  • krunkosaurus

    Great ad. The numbers you got make sense when one understands that only a small select group of people on a general web dev mailing lists use Backbone and a smaller (maybe 1/10) of those people are interested and capable of writing their own plugins.

  • us0r

    Your landing page is actually pretty good but I can’t tell you have more content without noticing the scroll bars. Also don’t use the word “Buy” in the ad. Download or Get will produce better. And for the people not ready to get out their wallet – have an email newsletter or something and set it up to automatically send some samples or info with links to buy. This gives you another few chances to sell.

  • Max

    Sounds like a nice book, though I wouldn’t have clicked the banner either. In fact I looked at the ad and just scanned the two punchlines at the side. After having read the whole article I revisitid the ad and noticed it was a book about backbone. I should have noticed, because I’m into backbone – but didn’t.

    So here are more Principles of Banner design: don’t emphasize many things by coloring and boldening. Emphasize just one or two things. With a product this specific, backbone should be one of those one or two things!

    Also, don’t use columns. In your Ad, the User reads:
    1. Left top
    “Stop wasting…”

    2. Left bottom
    “Write maintainable…”

    3. Right
    The image of the book

    4. Bottom
    “Buy the ebook…”

    In this or another order. Instead you should make the user read from top to bottom. No left and right.

    - It’s too much large text.
    - Line spacing should be increased for better legibility

    - People also don’t like to read coloumns with lines of text with only two or three words in a row. Coloumns should have at least 5 or words in a row. Six words in one line of medium sized text is way better than a block of text seperated into three lines. Larger isn’t easier to read.

    So, enough said. I believe your book is probably much better than your ad. Another thing to consider is hiring a professional like yourself for certain kinds of things.