Get real, say leading-edge Internet companies who are starting to pile into sponsorship of offline events and promotions to cut through the worsening clutter online.
In the cacophonous general media world where Internet sites and search engines scream for attention through banner, TV, radio and print ads, the event-marketing landscape still looks like virgin territory.
But that's changing fast. Dozens of major Internet brand marketers have discovered the power of sports sponsorships, mall tours, concert tours and fan events offering time in the spotlight, one-on-one marketing action and the chance to demonstrate Internet offerings to new audiences.
EVENT CATEGORY TO REACH $60 MIL
As recently as 1996, total spending on sponsorships by Internet companies was less than $5 million, estimates Sean Brenner, managing editor of Chicago-based IEG Sponsorship Report, which tracks pure sponsorship spending by industry category. Internet companies' activity began to surge last year, and total sponsorship spending will exceed $40 million this year, he says.
That doesn't include event marketing, which accounts for another $60 million spent by Internet companies on the events and promotions surrounding sponsorships, say industry observers.
"The fast growth of the Internet world has created a new level of competition among the major players, who are now eager to get their names out there in the real world, to become more consumer-friendly and give people a sense of who's behind the company name," Mr. Brenner says.
$105 MIL STADIUM SPONSOR
For example, Internet service provider PSINet is the title sponsor of the National Football League's Baltimore Ravens in a $105 million deal.
"There will be an outpouring of sponsorship in sports from dot-coms, everything from baseball teams wearing jerseys sporting Internet company logos to sports arenas named after dot-coms and cultural events sponsored by Internet companies," says David Seuss, CEO of Northern Light, a Cambridge, Mass.-based search engine that sponsored a car at last spring's Indianapolis 500. (Unfortunately for its sponsor, the car did not get past the qualifying rounds.)
Mr. Seuss, who happens to be a race car driver but did not pilot his company's car, says Northern Light will announce several more sports sponsorships in coming months because of the tactic's effectiveness.
"On a pure analytical basis, sports sponsorship gets our name in front of millions of people at a lower CPM [cost per thousand] cost than other forms of media, and we've found it to be very effective for introducing our service and building recognition," Mr. Seuss says.
BACKING TRADITIONAL ADS
Northern Light's event marketing is in addition to TV and print advertising created by Mullen Advertising, Wenham, Mass.
It's not sufficient to be a mere sponsor of an event, however.
"We go for sports sponsorship for the multiplier effect it has based on the expenditure, and that only happens when you're the title or main sponsor and your name gets major attention," Mr. Seuss says.
Search engines were among the first Internet companies to dive into event marketing. Powerhouse Yahoo! was a pioneer in Internet event marketing as early as 1995,
when it appeared as a supporting sponsor of a variety of events including local hockey and baseball teams.
Yahoo! has steadily stepped up the action. This year it became primary sponsor of a car in the Indy 500 for the first time, and upped its role as a sponsor of the National Hockey League's San Jose Sharks and Dallas Stars plus Major League Baseball's Oakland A's and the New York Yankees.
TEN YAHOO! TAXIS
Hands-on sampling of Internet services is the most powerful form of marketing, say insiders. Last month, Yahoo! took things in a new direction by sponsoring a fleet of 10 taxis in San Francisco, each equipped with a live, wireless Internet connection available for free to any rider lucky enough to hail one of the cabs decorated with Yahoo!'s purple logo.
Music and mall tours are the hottest area of all Internet event marketing, and this fall a record number of search engines, sites and ISPs are pouring money into live promotions aimed at handing samples to potential customers.
ISP MindSpring Enterprises is holding its first-ever open-to-the-public "CD Launch Parties" this fall, inviting hundreds of people to parties in Atlanta and San Francisco to get a free copy of MindSpring's latest sign-on software complete with a customized music clip from Collective Soul, which will perform Nov. 7 at a MindSpring show in MindSpring's home town of Atlanta.
"Going on the Internet is still very intangible and scary for a lot of people, and we want them to see there are people behind MindSpring and it's really a community and not something cold and distant," says a MindSpring spokeswoman.
A CONCERT HYPING WEB ARTISTS
San Diego's MP3.com sponsored its first concert this summer to help promote its site for downloading new artists' music; it backed singer Alanis Morissette's tour in which five bands made popular by site users performed before the main act at each tour stop, giving site visitors an indirect way of expressing themselves in the offline world.
This fall, the "MP3.com Music & Technology Tour" visits 26 college campuses through Nov. 18, headlined by the Goo Goo Dolls.
Shopping malls have become magnets for Internet companies seeking the second wave of customers--people who are not yet online or who are so-called newbies to the online world, says event-marketing expert Joel Benson, president of EventNetUSA, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The company is planning "WebFair," a 50-city national shopping mall tour next spring to give as many as 75 Web sites sampling opportunities.
The shopping mall is the perfect place to find people who are demonstrating by their presence in the mall that they're not online, Mr. Benson says.
"There are more than 40 million Web sites out there now and TV spots and billboards are just not doing it. People are lost and confused, and they seek guidance on where to go online," he says.
EXPOSURE AT 100 MALLS
Four versions of WebFair will visit 100 malls from April through October, stopping for three days at each mall. Each participating Web site will receive a kiosk equipped with two screens offering consumers the chance to explore specific Web sites through a CD-ROM simulation, without e-mail or live chat.
Each Web site participant will receive a full-page ad in a free "Web address book" to be given away for free to consumers; the cost is $125,000 for each participant.
Even high-flying Internet auction site eBay decided it had to hit the road last summer to help promote its site, launching two mobile marketing units on a nationwide tour to visit fairs and flea markets to add a real-world dimension to the virtual.
Newcomers to eBay were given the chance to sample the auction site for free and create their own home page with the help of experts, plus win prizes of T-shirts, visors and other eBay branded apparel.
One of the most powerful draws of eBay's tour, themed "From our home page to your home town," was the camaraderie created when eBay auction fans gathered to commune at fairs and festivals.
"Since word-of-mouth is a huge factor in Internet marketing, we got out there with the people talking about eBay," says John Kosis, director of client services for TLPlanet, Wilton, Conn., which created and executed the tour for eBay. GMR Marketing, Brookfield, Wis., designed the two trucks.
Reaching those new to the Internet has become a primary goal of many Web sites targeting potential customers through event marketing, and when the online furniture site FurnitureFind.com launched a major promotional push this year, it decided to use a mall tour to get women who were just starting to use the Internet.
CHASING FEMALE MALL CROWD
"We're not going after hardcore techies and men; our audience is women between 34 and 49, and they happen to be in the malls," says Stephen Antisdel, president of the Buchanan, Mich.-based FurnitureFind.com.
Joining as a major sponsor of an annual shopping 20-city mall tour by Better Homes & Gardens, FurnitureFind.com was the only Web site among several home furnishings and decor sponsors joining the "Blueprint 2000" tour, centering on an interactive "model home" designed by input from BH&G's readers.
The tour, running from June 27 through Nov. 7, generated "significant awareness" for the site, although the effects were difficult to measure, Mr. Antisdel says.
For automotive site Wrenchead.com's launch last summer, going the traditional route of targeting people online with banner ads was ineffective because many potential do-it-yourself car mechanics "are out underneath their car, which means they're not online," says Gus Conrades, CEO of CBS Corp.-backed Wrenchead.com.
The goal was to drive DIYers to the site, so Wrenchead got aboard the 30-city tour "Nascar Rocks," co-sponsored by the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing and CBS, which combined a concert by the Allman Brothers with stock car races in major cities.
Through a tie-in with major sponsor True Value, Wrenchead offered "The Wrenchead Challenge" to event attendees, giving participants a chance to compete against the clock to change a tire in a simulated race-track pit. Winners got T-shirts and were directed to the Web site to see how they compared with other competitors nationwide as part of a national contest.
"Our goal was to let people know we existed and to drive them online," Mr. Conrades says, adding that the approach was effective because people had a reason to visit the site to see how they did.
Promotion experts say the most effective promotions drive consumers to sites through sweepstakes, contests and personalization, including putting photos of event participants on Web sites.
DESIGN A DREAM TRIP
One such example this fall is Advance Publications' CondeNet, which is promoting its new travel site, Concierge.com, with a "Dream It to Win It" sweepstakes, allowing participants to design their own dream trips. CondeNet this month will distribute tens of thousands of luggage tags to consumers at commuter areas; each tag features sweepstakes details plus the site's Web address, concierge.com; Nov. 30 is the contest-entry deadline.
The key to getting people to pay attention to Web brands is to make the concepts relevant to consumers in context, which is why MP3.com is so committed to events.
"We're all about music, and when you demonstrate to your audience what you really stand for, it resonates," says a spokesman for MP3.com.
Copyright November 1999, Crain Communications Inc.