Dot-coms prep for Bowl traffic jams

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Dot-coms advertising during the upcoming Super Bowl hope to make a big splash, but avoid an image-damaging crash.

To ward off problems that ads before and during Super Bowl XXXIV could bring to their Web sites, some dot-coms have spent "millions" to ensure their online properties remain open for business on game day and beyond.

As HotJobs.com and Intimate Brands' Victoria's Secret learned last year, an onslaught of simultaneous visitors can spell trouble. Last year, consumers, investors and the media largely let those sites' failures slide, acknowledging the Web's vulnerability as a new medium.

This year, however, dot-coms expect less forgiveness. A site crash could severely damage an online brand's image, no matter how good its ads during the Jan. 30 extravaganza are.

`THE WORST THING'

"If you are a dot-com company and you are going to blow your entire ad budget for the year on a 30-second ad in the Super Bowl, the worst thing that can happen to you is people go to your Web site after seeing the ad and it's down," said Ed Costello, senior manager for Olympic Internet technology at IBM Corp. Mr. Costello worked on the fabled IBM-created official 1996 Olympics site. IBM heavily promoted that site, only to have its image bruised by glitches and difficulties with higher-than-expected traffic.

So what are dot-coms doing to buffer their sites? Some, such as Computer.com, which has two :30s running during the pre-game show and one :30 in the fourth quarter, have purchased new servers and tapped experts such as Monster.com President-CEO Jeff Taylor, a Computer.com board member, to gain insight into disaster prevention.

Computer.com's ads by Merkley Newman Harty, New York, will present the site -- a computer and technology resource -- as a place for "regular people," said Computer.com CEO-Co-founder Mike Zapolin.

Infrastructure upgrades are important to maintain users' "long-term confidence" in the site, Mr. Zapolin said.

TOUGH LESSON

Super Bowl advertiser HotJobs suffered last year when a traffic surge caused the site to slow down so much that most visitors thought it had crashed, said Dimitri Boylan, chief operating officer of HotJobs.

"We completely underestimated the impact the Super Bowl would have on our traffic," Mr. Boylan said. "We were looking at it as a branding event. What we didn't realize was that within two minutes of running the commercial, our traffic shot right up. We hadn't built the infrastructure to accommodate it," he said, explaining that HotJobs last year was a small, young company with no financial ability to prepare.

Now a public company, it has spent "millions" this year to ready its systems for a traffic spike, said George Nassef, exec VP-chief information officer. "We are expecting a seven- to eightfold increase in our traffic on Super Bowl day and into the following week," Mr. Nassef said.

HotJobs has one pre-game ad and one during the second half of the game. McCann-Erickson Worldwide, Troy, Mich., created the spots.

`NEVER RISK EMBARRASSMENT'

Aside from HotJobs, Monster.com was the only dot-com advertiser in last year's Super Bowl. While its site did not crash, it has prepared for a traffic spike this year.

"We could never risk embarrassment," said Anne Hollows, senior VP-global brand strategy at Monster.com.

Monster.com has installed nearly 100 new servers, partly because it does more business now, but also to handle new visitors expected after this year's Super Bowl spots from Mullen, Wenham, Mass. Monster.com will have three pre-game spots, one in the first quarter and one in the fourth.

The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition (wsj.com), citing an existing subscriber base to protect, also has prepared for a traffic spike, said Neil Budde, VP-editor and publisher of the newspaper's interactive property. For example, the site modified its home page by removing "heavy" graphics so it loads faster and easier, he said.

"We want to be sure people get in and get a good experience," Mr. Budde said. The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition chose the fourth quarter for its spot, "right when people are getting ready to go back to work on Monday," Mr. Budde said. Arnold Communications, Boston, created the :30 that will position the site as a resource for personalized news and information.

SOME UNFAZED

Still, some sites remain unfazed. Although it hopes for a traffic jump, online and cable-based women's network Oxygen Media has not enhanced its site's infrastructure, said VP-Consumer Marketing Tricia Melton. In fact, it's adding content features playing off its Super Bowl ads.

When asked how the company is preparing for a traffic spike, Ms. Melton said, jokingly, "praying."

Oxygen is running one :30 from Mullen, Wenham, Mass., in the second quarter. The spot will push Oxygen's brand, including the site and the cable network, which is set to launch Feb. 2.

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