Budgeting for digital ad spending is a fine line between what works and completely throwing your money down the drain.  If you don’t have a budget, you’re not likely to be discovered, unless it’s competely by chance; if you do have a budget, the available metrics to track ROI across campaigns can return sketchy numbers that are harder to read than tea leaves in the bottom of a black cup.

In camp number one, let’s call them B  – are the Branders.  These are the people that preach about spending your dollars to build your brand awareness.  This works for larger companies that already have a brand in place — think Coke, GE, Toyota and that ilk.  Any exposure they get can be labeled brand awareness and if the metrics cannot support any reaction to a specific call to action, they can still claim profitability on the advertising front because they reinforced the brand image with consumers.

In camp number two, let’s call them A (yes, I know I’m alphabetically out of sequence) – are the Actioners.  They believe that every ad should be a call to action with a measurable return.  These are the people who believe wholeheartedly (including ourselves) that unless you are an Apple or an IKEA or a Johnny Walker that purchasing digital ad space on a performance basis is the way to go.   We think that small companies without an existing user base should be more creative in the way they choose to spend their ad dollars, and that every penny counts.  Most of the small to mid-size companies don’t have the high dollar budgets to engage the huge creative houses and encourage them to pump out celebrity-filled, over the top, big budget ads that might or might not be approved for the Super Bowl.

In order to see real ROI from ad dollars as a smaller entity, it’s critical to look at the options and streamline choices.  A scattershot approach does nothing for anyone and it is a very inefficient way of getting your message to your potential user base.  Choose to do an email campaign, a social media campaign, a larger buy on AdWords or an alternate platform, and invest enough time and money into creating an actionable set of ads that can be measured and quantified.

I’m not saying you should go all in on just one type of advertising and if it falls flat, you’re screwed.   Am I?  Well, actually, I am.  But you’re no more screwed than trying to take a miniscule budget and dole it out piecemeal, purchasing a few clicks here and a few impressions there.   If you don’t have the reach  – getting your message in front of a large enough target demographic – then you will not be able to accurately measure what’s working and what isn’t.

It’s the law of averages at work.  Everything has a conversion ratio, but you have to pitch a large enough sample to ascertain the ratio before you can leverage the data.  Initially, reach is everything.  Go with a decent creative (the more engaging the better, of course) and choose one channel to begin the analysis.  It doesn’t have to be the cheapest per eyeball (though that works for certain styles of advertising, kind of like the blitz) but it does need to be relevant eyeballs to your product.

Look at alternative methods of digital ad spend.  We met a company at AdTech called Linqia, who are developing content and context specific niche markets through a network of paid bloggers.  We also met a company called Questionmine who are producing interactive video advertising relatively cheaply.  Either of these alternatives might offer a chance to do some out of the box thinking about your approach to potential users, and offer a chance to not only see the real time productivity of your ads, but allow for feedback from prospects regarding either your product or the method you use to market it.

If the first plan of attack doesn’t produce results (and by results I mean none, not bad ones) then it’s time to move on to something else.  Having data that indicates the effectiveness of your pitch and shows you where in the process you are losing eyeballs is just as important as making sales, possibly more so when you first start to do digital spends.  It would be truly worse to think that you understand what’s creating conversions for your product and to put out the money for a big spend, only to find it a complete waste since the idea didn’t scale or wasn’t real when you enabled enough reach to see results on a larger scale.

A good rule of thumb would be 60% of your budget for a well researched and thought out single channel campaign; holding back the rest to either re-up on the same campaign if it initially appears to be a success, or pivoting to a secondary choice with the remaining funds if there is a problem.   Some of the remaining funds might need to be spent on fresh or modified creatives while maintaining the same ad channel, if the numbers indicate substantial reach but a failure to convert viewers.  Develop a logical plan of attack – perhaps it’s AdWords, social, email marketing in that order, and you’ll fund the second and third portions with revenue generated by the first.

Don’t be afraid to try different things.  Buying on a single channel in a larger block should allow you to do some A/B testing as well.  Test price points, angles of attack, color schemes, tempo of the narration if it’s a video ad, or multiple backstories if it’s a blogger network or paid content type of plan.   Make sure you post copies of all your advertising on your self hosted site – create a ‘New and Noteworthy’ or ‘Hot Off the Press’ section on your site and put your ads front and center on the main page with links to the complete campaign on its own page.   Post the ads on your social media pages, Tweet about them, make Pinterest boards – remember that every little bit helps; the market is so fragmented that it’s difficult to decipher what might hit and what might not.  Get creative with your creatives and don’t forget about the long tail effect of having them out in cyberspace in every possible instance you can think of, unless they are really bad creatives, and then you could still poke fun at yourself with a ‘Hall of Shame’ page on your self hosted site…