San Francisco-based I/Pro (http://www.ipro.com) on Jan. 1 starts a one-month promotion encouraging Web users to register with participating sites. The more sites users visit, the more points they rack up on a prepaid telephone calling card that will be mailed at the end of the promotion.
USA Today and Beverly Hills Internet have signed on to participate; I/Pro is negotiating with CBS, Apple Computer, Sony Corp. of America, Playboy, Ziff-Davis Publishing Co. and others. Talks are ongoing with Sprint and MCI Communications Corp. to supply the phone cards.
With the exception of the phone card provider and one marketer that may pay to get its name placed on the phone card, the promotion is free for sponsors.
I/Pro and its phone card partner will spend $1 million to conduct the promotion and pay for telephone time, said Ariel Poler, I/Pro president.
"We want to turn I/Code into a standard," Mr. Poler said. "We cannot pretend there aren't some tradeoffs you have to do to get it widely accepted."
It will be an expensive way to jump-start a Web tracking system that could provide what many marketers have been hoping for: the ability to track specific consumers' site usage habits and demographic information.
Sponsor Web sites will carry information on how to register for an I/Code number.
"It's an incredibly creative idea," said Emily Green, senior analyst at Forrester Research, Cambridge, Mass. "They definitely needed some help to get the critical mass."
"We think it's a great idea and that it will direct traffic to our site and give us information about who they are," said Larry Sanders, business manager for USA Today Information Network.
Some are skeptical of the system's value to Web site owners.
"I would say you'd need 10% of Web traffic before you start to get interesting," said David Ernst, senior VP-group supervisor, communications information services, at Young & Rubicam, New York. Using the recent Nielsen Media Research/CommerceNet statistics on Web usership as a benchmark, that would be 1.8 million people in the U.S. and Canada.
The promotion could also raise conflict of interest issues for I/Pro. Some sites-including USA Today-already use I/Pro's other software, meaning the company could be driving extra traffic to sites it measures, the equivalent of Nielsen Media Research conducting a promotion that would make more people watch CBS.