Called "custom publishing" by industry players, this new form of content-from simple product giveaways to multimillion-dollar, stand-alone sites-is crafted in close cooperation with an advertiser and is tailored to that advertiser's customer base.
Marketers including Toyota Motor Sales USA, IBM Corp., Rockwell International and BMW of North America have already signed up with online publishers including Time Warner, CMP Media and others.
But advertisers say they're not bankrolling these sites to directly sell more products. Rather, they're doing so to increase brand awareness.
"If you can prove that you can understand the passions of your target audience by bringing them something useful or entertaining, then your brand has substantially risen," said John Voelcker, director of online custom publishing at Time Inc. New Media, one of the companies most aggressively pursuing the custom publishing model.
To help polish their sponsors' images, publishers are deploying three primary models for custom sites.
Starter sites: Beginning at roughly $15,000, these sites repackage existing editorial content or give an advertiser a template to feature its wares on the publisher's site.
CMP LAUNCHES BUSINESS
On Nov. 14, CMP Media will launch "Business Guides" on its CMPnet umbrella site (www.cmp.net), featuring product news about technology company sponsors. So far, it's signed up 3Com Corp., Rockwell International, IBM and others.
Event sites: These short-term sites, costing between $30,000 and $200,000, usually have a specific promotional objective-hyping an event or conducting a contest.
They last from a few weeks to several months. A recent CMPnet event site sponsored by Microsoft Corp. offered insights into the workings of Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4.0 program and provided visitors with the beta version of the software. More than 50,000 copies of the browsers were downloaded during the site's 11-week run.
Stand-alone sites: These Cadillacs of custom publishing feature an array of unique content and a minimum six-figure commitment. This summer, BMW engaged in one of the most lavish of these ventures to date, paying $5 million for promotion and production of a custom site called CyberDrive on Time's Pathfinder (www.
The site appealed to BMW's country-club demographic customers with interactive fare such as programs for users to design their own golf courses.
CD-ROM, PRINT ADS
As part of its campaign, the automaker sent out free CD-ROMs containing the site's high-bandwidth video and audio clips and bought ads in The Wall Street Journal and other print media to promote the site.
IBM begins such a project on CMPnet, devoted to "NetBusiness," beginning Dec. 3.
These custom publishing efforts revive one of the Web's earliest marketing schemes. When companies first began building Web sites, they quickly realized that product information alone wouldn't draw many visitors. So they began filling their sites with contests, advice and information to encourage repeat visits.
The problem was, after the effort to create this material, few users showed up to look at it. Why read cosmetics tips at www.avon.com when you can get objective information from Fashion Internet (www.finy.com)?
GO TO THE EYEBALLS
So instead of luring netizens to their home pages, many advertisers are finding it makes sense to set up shop where the eyeballs are, by subsidizing specialized content on the Net's most trafficked sites.
But some question the cost-effectiveness of such a strategy-especially for smaller businesses.
"Custom publishing is going to prove prohibitively expensive for most advertisers," said Chris Ellwell, VP-general manager of Mecklermedia's internet.com, a site that does not currently host solely sponsored content.
"The vast majority are going to find it much more cost-efficient to associate themselves with content that publishers are already creating," said Mr. Ellwell. "In the traditional publishing model, the publisher takes the risk for content creation. But in the custom model, the advertiser shares that risk."
SPAM NOT AN OPTION
Time's Mr. Voelcker disagreed. "The most cost-efficient way to go is spam. But reputable brands don't want to piss off their customers," he replied. "Not every firm can afford to be in People or Time. But major national brands can work us into their marketing budgets."
With multimillion-dollar payoffs from companies like BMW-and with few Web sites turning a profit on banner ads alone-expect to see a slew of online publishers over the next year trying to get into the sponsored content business.
Mr. Shachtman is acquisitions editor for the business and technology group at