Faster site, faster truck
The sports giant's new look comes out of beta today, and Ford is its first sponsor, taking over the home page and enlisting the help of an ESPN anchor in pushing the Ford F-150 truck. As users pull up the home page, the site darkens except for a video of an ESPN anchor announcing the redesign. Just as he calls the site "faster," a Ford truck pulls in below him and a Ford spokesman walks onto the screen and picks up with "tougher, stronger and smarter. Introducing the all new '09 F-150."
It joins a growing number of clever creative executions that media companies are offering in which the media placement or adjacent content play just as large a role in the creative as the ad itself. (For more examples, check out what Apple did on Yahoo Games to promote its iPhone as a gaming system or the YouTube trailer Nintendo crafted to promote a Wii game.)
Pushing the creative envelope
The larger idea behind ESPN's redesign was to create a template that would allow ESPN to do more of those special ad integrations, something that would help ESPN "get larger shares of overall budgets," said Eric Johnson, exec VP-multimedia sales at ESPN.
In this case, it helped the sports site nab dollars from a wallet-tightening group of advertisers: domestic autos. Ford's concern was "to push the envelope creatively," said Alex Hultgren, digital-media marketing manager at Ford. "We're looking for those partner publishers that will be willing to try something collaborative that we couldn't get from a different partner and they couldn't do with another advertiser." Ford agency Wunderman worked on the ad and Pointroll was the rich-media vendor.
To make its site more integration-friendly, ESPN is eschewing the traditional banner ad that has been a staple of its site and adding a large button ad that can run video ads in the adjacent video player, which has become more prominent in the redesign. In lieu of the banner it's including two pencil-thin strip ads, which can expand from 50 pixels tall to 250 pixels tall -- larger than most traditional banner ads. The button ad and the banner ad can run creative that interacts with each other as well.
Push and pull
Of course, there's always a bit of a push-pull relationship between a publisher's developing new ad treatments that give marketers more visibility and keeping users from feeling their content experience has been sullied. And ESPN's case was no exception.
Advertisers always want to be closer to the content, said ESPN's Mr. Johnson. So it moved one of the expandable pencil banners to below the navigation bar, closer to the content. The boon for users, though, was that ESPN pushed scores, one of the most commonly perused areas of the site, right up top -- above the ad. Previously scores have fallen below the banner ad.
"We're focusing on value, not on adding more or less ad units," he said. Neither side would say how much Ford paid for today's treatment.
It was all about "advertiser screenage," said Ed Erhardt, president-sales for ESPN and ABC Sports. He cited a Frank N. Magid study that found most people were unwilling to pay, even a little bit, for their favorite online content. "If that's the case, then we need to make advertiser screenage work better," he said.