Sony Web media play muddies ad-edit line

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In a bid to target more specific groups of consumers, Sony Electronics this week inaugurates an unusual and potentially risky Web media program that blurs the line between advertising and editorial content.

The program, called "feature by Sony," involves articles written by freelance writers that appear as editorial on popular Web sites. The pieces are geared to Sony's specific consumer segments to show how consumers can integrate technology into their lives.

The Park Ridge, N.J., electronics unit of Sony Corp. will spend an estimated $10 million over nine months on the interactive effort, its largest Web media spend ever. In doing so, Sony's purchased Web real estate for roughly 60 stories on up to 40 content properties including AOL Time Warner's America Online and sibling Time Inc. sites, various Yahoo! channels and niche publications. The lifestyle vignettes will appear in some cases on the home pages of the Web sites, but also deeper within the sites depending on the habit of each venue's readership. The mainbars read like features, while the sidebars incorporate links to products and send readers to SonyStyle.com, the Sony Web site, for more information. The only other Sony identifier is a small subhead at the top of each main story, "feature by Sony."

unable to agree

Not all Web publications approached agreed to accept "feature by Sony." A spokeswoman for New York Times Digital said, "On NYTimes.com, advertorial content must be clearly labeled to distinguish it from editorial content, and we were unable to agree upon a program ...that would meet these advertising accepability guidelines."

"The strategy was reader-based: Go where people ... seek out information about their lifestyle and passions," said Denise White, the project's editorial director .

Sony partnered until last year with Time Custom Publishing to produce the quarterly Sony Style, which had newsstand distribution. But it wanted to improve distribution of the content while also more effectively targeting consumers.

With Sony's shift this year to a consumer-segment-based marketing approach (AA, March 18), the company identified six different consumer targets: Alphas (early adopters and technology influencers); Gen Y; Families; Young Professionals; Small Office/Home Office; and Zoomers, (ages 55 plus). A multimillion dollar marketing push due by early fall from WPP Group's Y&R Advertising, New York, will deliver six distinct campaigns.

"All advertisers are looking for richer ways to communicate with their consumers," said T. Scott Edwards, consumer segment marketing officer, Sony Electronics, adding, "richer in our case also means educational. ... It's hard to do in a 30- or 60-second commercial."

One "story" targeting Zoomers on NationalGeographic.com details a retired NASA engineer and his wife's lifestyle crossing the country in an Airstream camper. The couple shoots digital pictures along the way and shares them via the Internet. GenY will be targeted on ugo.com.

relevant content

Jack Haire, Time Inc. exec VP, had no rate card for such a program, but he rallied executives from Time Inc. and AOL to come up with a plan for distributing Sony's content.

Mr. Haire doesn't think the editorial content by Sony will confuse readers . "It will be interesting, it's relevant content," he said. Among the sites where the content will run: People.com, InStyle.com, targeting young professionals, and on AOL via MovieFone and AOL Music, targeting GenY.

"This is certainly not a traditional online media campaign," said David Cohen, senior VP-interactive media director on Sony at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Universal McCann.

Whether the strategy succeeds or fails, Mr. Edwards is eager to give it a try. "We're breaking paradigms here," he said.

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