Banners to bots, publishers vie for right model

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When it comes to selling advertising on the Web, "flexibility is the key word," according to USA Networks' Ellen Kaye.

But for most media companies with Web sites, "anything goes" is a better way to put it.

PROPOSAL AFTER PROPOSAL

Hungry for revenues that will give validation to their operations, Web publishers are churning out proposal after proposal for ads that move, that masquerade as content, even talk. It's all an effort to catch the interest of more marketers and move beyond the banner, that much-maligned staple of Web advertising.

"If all we can offer creative directors is `Do the coolest thing you can do in a banner ad,' then we're not going to see the most creative advertising," said Rick Boyce, ad director at HotWired Network.

HotWired, one of the first to showcase banner ads, now proposes a spectrum of possibilities, ranging from basic banner ads on HotBot, HotWired's search engine, to animated ads on Web zine Suck to big-ticket sponsorships of HotWired channels like Dream Jobs and Packet.

CHAT ADS

HotWired also is experimenting with ads in its Talk.com chat environment that take the form of marketer spokescharacters. Mr. Boyce envisions an online chat in which Tony the Tiger or the Pillsbury Doughboy participate as "bots," online robots programmed to interact with human chat participants.

No marketer has yet bought into the concept, but it's the kind of idea that is changing the Web advertising landscape.

Banner advertising generated an estimated $66.7 million in revenues for Web publishers in the first half of the year, according to Jupiter Communications' WebTrack AdSpend report.

Jupiter, which tracks spending on 93% of ad-supported Web sites, doesn't yet track other kinds of ad spending, such as broad sponsorships or content syndication deals. Most Web publishers acknowledge that such deals currently represent a very small portion of their ad revenue.

BANNER FRUSTRATION

For Web advertising to truly succeed, banners need to go away entirely, said Norman Lehoullier, co-director of Grey Interactive, New York.

"The banner and button model is not a useful tool to articulate a message to consumers," Mr. Lehoullier said. "I hope to see content providers develop greater-value ad models."

But making a conscious effort to get away from the banner ad model is an exercise in frustration for some sites. USA Networks' Sci-Fi Channel, which operates the Dominion, offers to create content for advertisers, develop games and produce special events.

But most marketers just want to buy banners, said Ms. Kaye, VP-enterprises at USA Networks.

EASY TO DIGEST

Other sellers of Web ads agree.

"It's just easier to digest how many banners am I getting and what am I paying for them," said Jeff Lehman, VP-technology sales at Softbank Interactive Marketing, San Francisco, rep firm for Ziff-Davis Publishing Co.'s ZD Net and others.

Lifetime is proposing three distinct ad models to marketers: standard banners; "content-based advertising," in which the marketer and network team up for a feature on the Web site; and sponsorship of various sections of the site.

"We're more than happy to take someone's banner, but it's not our first-round draft pick," said Brian Donlon, VP-sports, new media and public affairs at Lifetime Network.

CAUSE MARKETING

What Mr. Donlon said he'd like to see more of is a program like the one Lifetime is now hawking to automobile marketers. Lifetime created an area on its site to promote breast cancer awareness and the need to have regular mammograms. The network crafted a program under which a woman can fill out an information form online, print it out, have it stamped by a doctor's office after the mammogram is completed and then take it to a dealership for a $250 rebate on a car.

"It's really giving the user some incentive to check out the content on the site, utilize the content and then associate it with the advertiser," Mr. Donlon said. Such a program would cost roughly $12,000 per month, he added.

MINI-WEB SITES

The Chicago Tribune, which is just now making a big push for advertising on its Web site, will create mini-Web sites for its advertisers in an effort to boost revenue, as will other newspaper-based sites such as New Jersey Online.

"We are willing to try any rate model that is reasonable for both sides," said Kurt Fliegel, interactive ad manager for the Tribune. "We're not looking this year to generate a lot of revenue or even break even.

"This year--and even next year--is to test different revenue models and ways of talking to our customers."

Copyright November 1996, Crain Communications Inc.

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