Q: Our organization is considering selling ads on its website but we need to develop guidelines and pricing. Do you have any information or can you direct me to some sources?

A:  In today’s economic climate everyone is looking for ways to bring in additional dollars to be able to maintain services. Selling ads on one’s website appears an attractive option. I’m glad you are interested in creating guidelines, however, since this is an area fraught with potential negatives. Grant me the latitude to review some of these before answering your specific questions, because while you may have considered them, others with dollar signs dancing in their heads may not have.

I should acknowledge at the start that many nonprofits today are already listing their sponsors on their websites. While some of the points below, particularly those addressing presentation, are relevant, as long as you respect the IRS guidelines for differentiating between sponsors and advertisers, this article is not aimed at you.

Selling ads can be a powerful tool in your arsenal if you carefully identify the right advertiser(s) – advertisers with a product that benefits your clients or programs. However, this is difficult at best. Even some of the preeminent cause-related marketing schemes have generated negative consequences. The Arthritis Foundation thought it had a winner with Johnson and Johnson when they agreed to put their logo on bottles of Tylenol. The Arthritis Foundation was paid over a million dollars for the use of its logo and Johnson and Johnson benefited from the trust arthritis sufferers had in the Foundation. However, the arrangement led to suits claiming the public was misled into thinking that Tylenol was the preferred drug for relieving the pain of this condition, when it was merely the one with whom the Arthritis Foundation had a financial arrangement. Both organizations came out of this with black eyes.

As you’ve identified, you also have to be sure you are pricing the relationship correctly. I’ve known many an organization feel so flattered to be approached by a business that they jumped at the first offer. Your brand – your reputation – is one of the most important things you have. Don’t undersell it. Besides, since you will have to pay unrelated business income tax on the advertising revenue, you want to be sure the amount you receive is worth it.

But there are other issues as well. Are you going to “sell” the advertising or are you going to rely on a more passive approach by working through an ad service such as Google AdSense? If you do the selling, you have more control over the types of advertising you accept and perhaps even the look of the ads, but you also are committing to a potentially significant investment of time in an activity that has nothing to do with your mission. If you work through a service, you don’t have to worry about this – the work is done for you. However, while you may be able to specify keywords that are related to your mission, you won’t know until the ads are up whether they are a good, neutral or objectionable fit. How does it look to the public if liquor ads are popping up on MADD’s website – even if those liquor ads are tastefully presented? You can arrange with most of these services to take down objectionable ads, but what damage may have been done prior to the removal?

How will your stakeholders respond when they log on looking for specific information and are bombarded with advertising? Will they understand? Or will they be turned off? Will they get confused by what is fact and what is a pitch? What if they are so intrigued by the ad that they click to learn more about the advertiser and leave your site? What tradeoffs are you willing to make?

Can you make enough money to justify taking the chance of turning off your visitors? Obviously, the more traffic your website generates, the greater your opportunity to make money. Google AdSense estimates, for instance, that you can earn anywhere between $.05 and $5.00 for every 1000 impressions, or every 1000 times the ad loads. If you don’t already have an idea of how often visitors view each page of your website you might want to register for Google Analytics, which is a free service, to determine this.

Assuming you wish to move ahead, consider if you will accept text only, static or animated images. Determine if you will charge based on the number of times the ad is seen, the number of times someone clicks through to the advertiser or the number of times someone takes an action the advertiser desires. Think about where on your website you will permit advertising. Most advertisers will want to be on your home page, but is that appropriate for you? Likewise, how will ads impact the look of your website, the image you are trying to convey about your organization? Think through if you will allow multiple ads on a page and what size those ads will be. Clearly, you’ll be able to charge more for an exclusive ad and it will be less obtrusive, but that ultimately limits the income you can receive. Will you sell different sized ads? (Note: If you work through a service you may not be able to dictate some of these things.)

Some companies that provide advertising services are listed here for your convenience, so that you can determine if this is truly a route for you to go. Note that their mention should not be construed as an endorsement.

• Google Adsense – https://www.google.com/adsense/login/en_US/
• AdBrite – http://www.adbrite.com/ 
• AdToll – http://www.adtoll.com 
• Bidvertiser – http://www.bidvertiser.com/ 
• Clicksor – http://www.clicksor.com/ 
• Exit Junction – https://secure.exitjunction.com/
• ValueClick Media – http://www.valueclickmedia.com/

Good luck!