The web, it turns out, is doing more than just transforming media-business models -- it's blurring the definition of media in the first place. Does a media site create content with the goal of selling ads or subscriptions to pay for it? Or can we now define as a medium any site that aggregates an audience through other means -- e-commerce or lead generation -- then it turns around and sells to advertisers?
In short, if Papa John's promotes Blockbuster and Coca-Cola on its site, does that make the pizza purveyor a media company?
Papa John's is adamant it's not. But companies such as Amazon and eBay and IAC brands such as ServiceMagic that were not built as media companies, lately have all begun to act like them: They all sell ads to targeted audiences who are in an acquiring state of mind. And when online media agencies can't find what they're looking for among "traditional" media sites, they're increasingly not afraid to approach these aggregators to manufacture ad opportunities.
"We've been reaching out to e-commerce and transactional sites and trying to create ad opportunities with them," said Jordan Bitterman, VP-media director at Digitas. "If you get closer to that purchase, you're creating a very ripe opportunity for an ad adjacency, and one would assume it would work a lot harder and be more effective."
From an audience standpoint, any site that aggregates scale online is going to be valuable to marketers. Amazon is the seventh-largest property; eBay, whose display and search ads are sold domestically through Yahoo, is the sixth-largest, according to ComScore. That puts both of them ahead of such juggernauts as New York Times Digital, Viacom Digital, Weather Channel and CNET.
"Amazon is an environment where lots of things are combined that are really attractive: tremendous scale, folks in a transactional mind-set," said Alan Schanzer, managing partner, MEC Interaction. "The ability to target [is] pretty impressive. ... There's no reason not to be looking at it as a place to do advertising."
Playing both sides
Mr. Bitterman said his company has approached smaller transactional sites that have not run ads because they've found them to be the perfect fit for a particular client and they offer a way to triumph over ad clutter. That also, in some cases, turns the agency into both media seller and buyer.
While it doesn't have the scale of an Amazon, IAC's ServiceMagic, which makes money by matching homeowners with area contractors, has intent and data that make it valuable to advertisers, said David Kahn, VP-media solutions.
"We know exactly what it is they want to get accomplished in and around their home, and at that moment we can bring the advertiser into the mix," he said. "We've got a level of data that's critical for targeting the right message."
Such sites are open to third parties, a distinct difference from retailer sites such as HomeDepot.com and Walmart.com, which last summer started selling microsites and ad inventory to their vendors. (A few criticized the move as a well-disguised slotting fee.)
Of course, there's something a little grating about the idea of ads plastered everywhere across the web -- is it not OK to let any white space breathe? Must every single potential page in the vast bastion of the web try to sell you something?
That's a careful balancing act -- and one these sites watch closely. ServiceMagic's Mr. Kahn said the site only offers an ad after a homeowner completes a service request. "We will not distract them prior" to that, he said.
Although it's not a straight ad-sales model, Papa John's promotes affiliate partners such as Blockbuster, Time Inc. and Coca-Cola on its site. Its management is adamant that it isn't selling ads and has very specific standards for what kinds of partners it will work with.
"We look at our partnerships through a very filtered lens, and we look at things that are affinity with Papa John's brand and affinity with the pizza category," Michael Cordy, director-partnership marketing.