In-house rep staffs build better ties for Web sites

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Those who can, do. Those who can't, hire a rep company.

That's the bottom line for Web sites trying to sell advertising. When a Web site can afford to maintain an in-house ad sales department, it will likely reap rewards from better client relations and stronger profits.

The Internet search engine Excite, for example, moved from using a rep, poppe.com, Mountain View, Calif., to an in-house staff last year. Rick Vorhaus, ad sales director for Excite and a former employee of poppe.com, said if a company has the capital to invest, an in-house ad sales staff can't be beat.

"It's more a matter of economic feasibility," Mr. Vorhaus said.

He added that an in-house staff knows the qualities of its own site better than any rep, and so can make much more persuasive sales pitches.

MAJOR CHALLENGE

But an ad sales department is a challenge to establish; it can hinge more on who you know than how good your product is.

Discovery Channel Online uses an in-house sales force to tap into the established advertiser connections the cable operation has already created, said Tom Hicks, publisher of the Web site.

Similarly, Seth Levenson, advertising manger for the CondeNet division of Conde Nast Publications, said he sticks strictly with an in-house staff to control the sales process and pitch his product in the best light.

"We're not looking to be bought as a commodity," Mr. Levenson said. He said his company, which runs the food and travel site Epicurious and the twentysomething relationship site Swoon, has brought in a broad range of advertisers, from computer makers and package-goods marketers to appliance and liquor concerns.

Enthusiasts of Web reps say these outfits can help small, cash-poor start-ups greatly increase their sales reach while at the same time eliminating overhead concerns associated with additional employees. Also, Web rep firms already have experience in selling advertising and so can prove more effective than Web shops trying it alone.

`LETTING ME DO MY JOB'

Since February, Web site Film.com has left ad sales to WebRep, San Francisco, which has brought in a half-dozen advertisers, such as Microsoft Corp. and Blockbuster Video.

Lucy Mohl, president of Film.com, said WebRep has made a big impact on her company's bottom line.

"I thought, `They're bound to do a better job than us at selling advertising,' " she said. "They're letting me do my job, which is run a Web site."

HYBRID APPROACH

Other Web sites are finding a hybrid sales approach works best. They hire a rep firm for broader coverage, while the in-house sales staff concentrate on building relationships with companies more germane to the site's content.

NBC Interactive relies on a split approach for its Web sites, operating a four-person staff for longer-term, customized promotional offerings, such as contests, while using Softbank Interactive Marketing, New York, to sell banner advertising inventory.

Patricia Karpas, VP of interactive advertising and client marketing for NBC, said the best approach for sales is still up for judgment.

"Over the last year, we've only just gotten into the whole sales and marketing process," she said.

Copyright November 1996, Crain Communications Inc.

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