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Buying Print Media: Track Your Buy

By June 16, 2015 No Comments

Digital marketing provides new tools for tracking successes across all media – not just digital. Here we take a look at why and how to track print buys using digital tools.

Bass fishermen will be familiar with this story: you head out in the late spring and find a cove that appears to have the perfect mix of warm water and emergent vegetation cover for largemouth bass and… nothing. You take your time and give it an opportunity to pay off, but it just doesn’t work. That’s okay. You won’t waste your whole day in that cove. You’ve measured your (lack of) returns and now you’ll head to what will hopefully be better waters.

At other times, you’ll run into a hotspot by accident. This time, you measure your returns, and stay put. Don’t question success!

That’s a perfect analogy to measuring returns in print media buys. Let’s take a look:

For years, these were the key metrics for print:

  • circulation
  • reader demographics

Essentially, this is stuff you know before you ever make the buy. So how can you use that to gauge an ad’s success? Unless you’re simply looking to generate awareness, you can’t. It’s critical to establish which publications work and which do not. Otherwise, you’ll miss opportunities to expand on good ads, and may continue advertising in a publication that doesn’t even generate a nibble. Time to move to a different cove.

Retailers frequently use coupons to help gauge an ad’s success. The more coupons that come into the store, the more successful the ad. But not every business, product or service easily translates to a coupon experience. What if you’ve got no coupon offer? Here’s the secret: you don’t have to count every success: you just need to compare relative success versus the cost of each placement.

It’s not that difficult. If you’re not already tracking print campaigns, you can transform the way to evaluate print with just a change or two:

    1. Use Vanity URLs. Do readers go to your website after they see your ad? Vanity URLs will tell you. A vanity URL (ex: com/amazing1) first adds analytics tracking code to identify the ad as the source of the visit, then redirects the user to a landing page that continues the story. Vanity URLs get the reader to the correct website information and let your marketing team track results. By assigning a different vanity URL (with unique tracking code) to each publication, you can identify successful ads and successful publications.

      Some (many?) users will ignore the vanity URL portion of the domain name. That’s okay. You can still compare relative traffic among those who do use the full URL with vanity extension.

      After you gather your data in Google Analytics, calculate the cost per visit. Just divide the print ad cost by the number of tracked visits. If a $2,500 in one magazine generates 100 tracked visits ($25 per visit) and a $1,500 in another magazine generates 200 ($7.50/visit), you’ll want to know that as you go through the media budgeting process.


  1. Utilize Custom Phone Numbers. Obtain ad-specific toll-free numbers from a vendor with real-time online analytics. This provides a way to track the volume of calls generated by ads that include phone numbers, regardless of their type.

    Want to track a call through to the sale? Add “call whisper”. This short announcement message (heard only by the answering party) identifies the source. Example: “This is a sales lead from the June 2015 ad in Amazing Magazine.” Companies can track this from the initial contact through to a sale, even if there is a very long sales cycle involved.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of knowing what media works and what media doesn’t. Digital tracking techniques allow marketers in businesses of all sizes the ability to measure their success before making a decision about whether they should continue to cast their line in a publication or focus their lead fishing efforts elsewhere.

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