Internet Ads: The Debate Goes On But Online Experts Agree The Network's Commercialization Is Inevitable

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Advertising on the Internet is a hot topic these days. Everyone wants to know whether- and how- it can be done and how to avoid being "flamed" by angry uses for violating the unwritten code of ethics known as "netiquette."

Advertising Age took to cyberspace (in this case, Prodigy) and to the phone lines to ask readers and online industry experts for their thoughts on the appropriate ways to market and sell goods and services on the Internet.

Surprisingly, there seem to be no doubts about the commercialization of the Internet, a global network of computers that has long served as a haven for academics, researchers and government workers.

Scott Kurnit, exec VP-consumer products, marketing and development, Prodigy Services Co. (via Prodigy): Of course there should be ads on the 'net. The 'net only succeeds when it mirrors the real world. The trick is not to trick people into getting something they don't want. We can turn past the ads in a mag; we can turn the channel or leave the room with TV; we can look away from a billboard; we can usually figure out what's junk mail and chuck it [without] opening. The problem with the 'net is that the ads show up in dozens or hundreds of newsgroups disguised as valuable content. Yuk! Those "advertisers" should be flamed and boycotted.

There is an inevitability to this; the key is how to make it comfortable (is there such a thing on the net?) so users know what they're getting (ad vs. info, etc.). Ad info on the Internet can serve a value for users and providers, given the proper context.

Jeffrey Kagan, president, Tele Choice Consulting, Atlanta (via Prodigy): Many business people get all or at least a substantial bit of their new business leads from the Internet and other online services like Prodigy, CompuServe, America Online, etc.

Advertising is effective and accepted in varying degrees depending on what part of the Internet you are using. Some areas are open for business for advertising today. Others require a much more subtle approach.

But one way or the other, it is not only possible, but highly effective, to advertise and market on the Internet.

Robert Shapiro, senior VP-commercial marketing, Prodigy (via Prodigy): Eventually, there have to be standards for Internet on a number of topics, advertising being one. With CommerceNet and other applications being developed, the standards will become a big issue. The first major item should be a definition of advertising, i.e., would a forum be considered an ad?

Tom Phillips, VP-publisher, Starwave Corp., Bellevue, Wash: The Internet's not accessible to the non-techie at this point, [and] navigation on the Internet is still beyond what we expect our consumer to be capable of in the near term. It's still the province of the true believers and they're going to be most offended by those who violate the unwritten code of ethics.

Dale Dougherty, director, Digital Media Group, O'Reilly & Associates, Sebastopol, Calif.: The Internet is a wonderful place for content-driven advertising. We like to think of the Internet as something of a culture. To be a good citizen, you don't send out junk e-mail. There's a big difference between the style of advertising and the content. [With a clearly labeled ad,] the user's making a choice to select that ad and go for it. It's a different thing to take 100,000 user names and send out junk e-mail.

Larry Chase, president, Online Ad Agency, New York: It's basically the first industrial park in cyberspace. The advertising that will appear there will be content-driven, where people go to it. It can't be this aggressive, in-your-face thing. The consumer has too much power. It's got to be attractive advertising.

As with PBS, where the government started this momentum, they'd gladly like to pull back and let advertising pick up some of the costs. If it becomes ad-supported, it will bring down the cost of access, which means more people in the country will be info-haves.

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