WEATHER.COM PROMOTES ADVANCE ONLINE AD BUYS

Launches 'Not Quite an Upfront' Inventory-Selling Event

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DEER VALLEY, Utah (Adage.com) -- As it continues its expansion as a lifestyle feature service, Weather.com is also preparing to launch an ad-sales offensive that is close to being an online "upfront."
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The meteorological news service, one of the Web's most heavily trafficked sites, revealed its plans during presentations and interviews at last week's iMedia Brand Summit here.

Seven markets
Weather.com's vice president of national sales, Peter Green, said the company this week was launching a road show for senior agency planners and media buyers in seven major markets -- Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, New York and San Francisco -- to publicize its content plans for the coming year and offer its long-term ad inventory for sale.

The move follows Microsoft's MSN and other online publishers who last year began seriously calling for a systematic, advance online ad sales procedure much like that used by TV networks. Each spring, the networks hold a bazaar at which time they try to sell between 75% and 80% of their commercial airtime ahead -- or upfront -- of the new fall TV season. An important element of the established TV upfront is that it occurs in a bounded period of time, forcing media buyers to make deadline decisions in an auction-like environment.

Last year, MSN staged street promotions in Manhattan outside TV upfront venues to buttonhole and lobby media buyers about online buys as they came and went from the TV negotiations.

Media buyers' announcement
And at last year's May iMedia Summit in Scottsdale, Ariz., the media-buying divisions of Publicis Groupe's Starcom MediaVest Worldwide announced they were broadening their upfront services to include online buys -- and were greated with a thunderous ovation from the iMedia gathering of online media buyers and sellers.

During the past year, a number of large online publishers have been holding de factor "upfronts" but in a low-profile way that drew no attention to the activity. Weather.com now plans to take that effort to the next level with its very public, city-by-city road shows and coordinated promotions.

Lock in inventory
Mr. Green pointed out that he didn't consider this new campaign an "upfront" auction because the inventory sale is not occurring over a set period of time like TV's upfront. "We're saying talk to us now to lock in inventory," he said. "This is inventory that we know come October or November will no longer be available."

In past years, online publishers wouldn't hear about marketers' plans for the coming year until very late because online was most often an spur-of-the-moment spend that involved a sudden shift of funds from other parts of an ad budget, Mr. Green said.

That trend has now changed, according to media buyers. Several explained that the improving economy, the stabilizing Internet market place and the documented effectiveness of online marketing programs have made interactive more of a full-fledged part of mainstream marketers' longer-term media planning and buying mix.

'Evolving in that direction'
"It's not universal yet, but it is evolving and evolving in that direction," said Jeff Marshall, managing director and senior vice president of Starcom IP. "Most of our clients are planning on an annual basis, so there definitely is a move to be looking at more 12-month planning and deals."

Weather.com's high-profile move makes good sense, said Greg Smith, director of media at Carat Interactive. "The majority of Weather.com is commodity inventory. It makes sense for them to lock up advertisers upfront. The question is can advertisers get a better deal upfront or later on?" he asked.

At the same time it hypes online ad buying opportunities, the Weather.com road show is also designed to promote the expanding content strategy that is making the Web site a news service that is as much as about lifestyle issues as it is about weather, Mr. Green said.

Lifestyle content areas
Weather.com features lifestyle areas for golf and ski, health, home and garden, business and leisure travel and driving. A fitness area just launched. A pets section is planned and a weddings page is under consideration.

"We want to keep visitors informed, engaged and loyal," Mr. Green said. "We are pushing special-interest inventory more than ever before."

The site already has more than 1,000 advertisers, Mr. Green said. The strongest ad sectors are pharmaceutical, lawn and garden and travel. The expanding content mix is designed to emphasize entertainment, automotive and other new areas of coverage.

Weather.com traffic for July was 16.4 million unique users, according to Nielsen/NetRatings -- the typical monthly visitor rate. During Hurricane Frances though, there were 66 million page views and more than 6 million unique visitors in one day, Mr. Green said. Hurricane Ivan, which devastated the Gulf coast late last week, had not yet hit when Mr. Green was interviewed.

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