MSNBC.COM SELECTS SS&K FOR BRAND ADVERTISING WORK

First Marketing Effort in a Decade

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- MSNBC.com has chosen SS&K to promote its brand in the site’s first marketing campaign in a decade. The marketing budget for the effort, launching in late summer, is less than $7 million, according to an executive close to the deal. MSNBC.com has not had an agency since the mid-1990s.
One goal of the campaign is to broaden the appeal of the MSNBC.com and promote it as more than just a news Web site.

The overarching campaign goal is to attract new users to the site and increase time spent there, but Catherine Captain, VP-marketing of MSNBC.com, said part of the agency’s task is to uncover the meaning of the MSNBC.com brand beyond its identity as a news site.

25 million monthly uniques
MSNBC.com gets 25 million unique visitors a month, with news, movies, autos and health among the most highly trafficked, and it rates No. 7 for ad revenue at $188 million for 2005, according to TNS Media Intelligence. Its core strength -- news and information -- has become more competitive in recent months.

“I am particularly concerned about distinguishing ourselves in a market where every news site is starting to look a lot alike,” Ms. Captain said. And, since Google won the chance to develop a business deal with AOL over Microsoft, MSNBC has to focus on making the most of the content it has, analysts say.

“You want the eyeballs on the site and give a reason to spend a certain amount of time there, so [the more] you can build it up-through marketing, content or other incentives, the better,” said Joe Wilcox, senior analyst, Jupiter Research.

Audience of news addicts
SS&K’s first mission is to find out what the MSNBC brand means to its users, many of whom match the profile of news addicts. Another problem for SS&K to address is what the MSNBC.com brand name means, folded as it is between the NBC and Microsoft brands. A recent push to rebrand Microsoft as an Internet-based advertising entity has further confused the matter. “But MSNBC has come to mean something,” Ms. Captain said. “There’s a lot of upfront work here to understand the compelling pieces of the brand.”

Although Ms. Captain would not provide details about the agency search, she said the final cut before making her choice included three agencies, one of which was interactive and one of which was a combination of a traditional and branding firm. “I was concerned about bringing in the interactive agency because I felt it would predetermine my plan,” she said.

'Challenge the status quo'
She chose SS&K, a full-service marketing firm based in New York, because it has the ability of “really being able to challenge the status quo,” Ms. Captain said. The agency also touts something it calls asymmetric communications, which is “taking a budget the size of ours and making it seem like a lot more,” she said.

The campaign will possibly include online and print, and the use of TV airtime through the good graces of NBC, but no particular marketing channels have yet been planned. “Our calling card is we are discipline-agnostic,” said Joe Kessler, partner at SS&K. Some traditional efforts may be rolled out, but much of the campaign will probably use techniques like gaming or viral marketing, he said.

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