Ever since "satanic panic" dominated the news in the '80s, heavy metal fans have been painted as loners who wear black and live in their parents' basement. For nearly 40 years, that image has endured, often coloring the lives of ardent metalheads like Robert Pasbani, co-owner of the Blast Beat Network. It's that experience that helped him and his cohort of heavy metal faithful business owners find better online ad revenue through sheer strength in numbers for more than 11 years.
"It is challenging to explain the metal audience to non-metal advertisers. If you go to a big brand, they will sometimes assume metalheads are just like Beavis and Butthead," he said. "But our readers are 20 to 40 years old, many have families, they work full-time and are well off – they just happen to listen to extreme music."
How the Blast Beat Network helped similar businesses band together to boost ad revenues
As one of four owners at Blast Beat and a co-founder of one of the subculture's leading online media outlets Metal Injection for the last 17 years, Pasbani's livelihood rests on a musical genre recognized mostly by thundering drums, wailing guitars, screeching vocals and most importantly – the ardently devoted fans that thrash around at concerts.
With more than a decade of experience serving the heavy metal faithful, Pasbani and his cohort at Blast Beat work to make mainstream advertisers understand the truth: that metalheads are just like everyone else.
At its inception, Blast Beat was among a relatively small group of advertising networks on the internet and was one of two focused solely on heavy metal. While the original intent was to help Metal Injection secure a better bottom line, Pasbani said that changed when another heavy metal blog called Metal Sucks launched with a similar sense of humor and stylistic approach to covering the heavy metal scene.
After discussing potential collaborative projects, Pasbani said the two sites joined forces to secure advertising revenue. By finding websites that fit a similar niche as theirs did, Pasbani said Blast Beat allows each blog to focus on writing stories while the network handles the part of the business that most creatives don't like.
"[Our partner sites] are all very small businesses, like it's usually just one person. It was a very easy pitch to just be like, 'Here's one last thing you have to wrack your brain over, and it's like the least fun part of the job,'" he said. "[By working together,] it became a lot easier to approach certain advertisers that were avoiding working with Metal Injection singularly because we were too small."
Since then, six other heavy metal blogs like ThePRP and Heavy Blog is Heavy have joined the network. According to Pasbani, this communal take on advertising has helped all parties involved. The content creators didn't necessarily have to tailor their work to fit expectations from an ad agency, and advertisers could rely on the Blast Beat Network as a sort of one-stop advertising platform.
"It was great for the record labels, because instead of sending five different invoices for five different websites, they just have to send one invoice, so the strength in numbers was definitely to our benefit," Pasbani said.
While most small advertising companies sometimes have a hard time determining their rates as they start out, Pasbani said he and his partners didn't find that part difficult. By basing their fees on what "we saw we were already making or what we saw what other people were charging," the company began selling bulk advertising placements at reasonable rates, though he admits it was a learning process.
"It was definitely something we fluctuated with, where we started a little higher before coming down a little. But then when we got pitches for a $20,000 campaign, for example, we had to ask ourselves, 'How much do we charge for an original video?'" he said.
Over time, those issues subsided, and in recent years, Blast Beat has served more than 30 million monthly ads to over 10 million visitors that frequent the eight heavy metal blogs featured within the network. Having started "before blogs and YouTube," Pasbani said the ad network was founded to help drive revenue for Metal Injection in a bid at "trying to get it to the next level."
How COVID-19 changed everything, and ad blockers didn't
When the country shut down earlier this year, a ripple effect took place that shuttered businesses, crippled local economies and much to the chagrin of music fans everywhere, put a moratorium on live concerts. While that was a hard pill to swallow for metal fans, it was an even harder one to deal with for Blast Beat. Pasbani said the day nearly every tour announced cancellations was one of the hardest for his livelihood, since some of his largest clients were ticket sales companies like AEG and Live Nation.
"The moment all the tours got canceled, all of those banner campaigns were lost," he said. "We lost tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars."
What came next were some hard months as the company entered a "readjustment period," where the network had to look for other revenue streams. As available ad inventory grew scarce and clients began tightening their purse strings, Pasbani said these last few months have proven to be "a bit of a challenge to find the type of inventory to fill those slots."
"We're trying to make it work and recoup some of the money, but there's no way we're going to make anywhere near the amount we made last year," he said.
Certainly, the pandemic did more to hurt his business than what most people expect to be an online ad agency's boogeyman: the ad blocker. Such programs are usually free to use and work to stop advertisements from showing up on your screen at all. While that may be completely antithetical to Blast Beat's overarching business model, Pasbani said the negatives aren't as high as you'd expect.
"We did an analysis that shows something like less than 10% of our ads are being blocked. So it's certainly a concern, but it's not the end of the world," he said. "With most web browsing now coming from mobile, I don't think ad blockers have the same impact as they may have had 10 years ago."
Since ads that get blocked don't even load, Pasbani said his clients don't have to spend any of their budget for those ads. That lack of risk makes entering into an online ad agreement an easier pill to swallow, though if your small business is worried about losing ad money to a blocker, there are other ways to get your message out.
"Advertising isn't the only way to get your stuff out there. There's plenty of ways to advertise or do something beyond just the banner ad," he said. "Work with a publisher – like we've done with clients – on creating original content."
Things to remember when considering online ads
As a businessman that relies on the whims of the internet, Pasbani said there are some expectations that both advertisers and publishers should be aware of. Having seen what passes as heavy metal advertising to some clients, he realized there are too many instances where an online ad fails right from the get-go.
"I see this with a lot of really smaller bands that advertise with us, but they'll just send us the ad and it isn't an ad, it's just a picture," he said. "It's like, 'Who's gonna click on this?' There's no call to action. There's no reason to want to engage with it."
Small businesses looking to get their ads noticed online need to ensure their ad is eye-catching and creative.
"You should ask yourself who you want clicking on that ad," he suggests. "If you were that person, what would you need to see to get your attention?"
Another mistake that he sees too many of his clients commit is setting their expectations too high for how well the ad will do or not being flexible enough in their marketing strategy.
"You have to work with what the internet gives you," he said. "With a print ad, there's no click-through rate, but because you can track that with online ads, that's both an advantage and a detriment, because people expect unheard of results."
Citing an average national clickthrough rate of under 1%, Pasbani said you shouldn't expect that anyone is going to see your ad, let alone click on it and make a purchase right away.
"You're really just raising awareness, and you have to wow the audience with a traditional banner ad," he said. "That way, it's subconsciously in their brain so when they enter the marketplace looking for something to buy, they remember your ad, and they'll make their decision."
Having created and operated two small businesses, Pasbani said he's come to learn the value of focusing on your projects. By not spreading yourself too thin, you can be more successful, he said.
"You can't control how successful your competitors are, how they're getting the opportunities that you feel you deserve. Thinking about that is just a waste of time. All you can control is how good you deliver on what your business is and how you can improve on what you're doing, and how you can improve yourself," Pasbani said. "Don't spend too much time feeling like you're missing out on success because someone else is getting success. Rather, ask yourself, 'Why am I not seeing success?' and consider what you can do to improve your portfolio."