Weather.com VP-National Sales Peter Green said at a recent iMedia Brand Summit that the meteorological news service is beginning a road show for senior agency planners and media buyers in seven major markets. The purpose of the trip-hitting Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, New York and San Francisco-is to publicize its content plans for the coming year and offer long-term ad inventory for sale.
The move follows Microsoft's MSN and other online publishers who last year began seriously calling for a systematic, advance online ad-sales procedure much like that used by TV networks. Each spring, the networks hold a bazaar at which time they try to sell between 75% and 80% of their commercial airtime ahead of the new fall TV season. The goal for Weather.com, and a growing number of online publishers, is to get buyers to consider interactive advertising as they do TV advertising inventory-necessary to buy in advance.
Last year, MSN staged street promotions in Manhattan outside TV upfront venues to buttonhole and lobby media buyers about online buys as they came and went from the TV negotiations. And at last year's iMedia Summit in Scottsdale, Ariz., the media-buying divisions of Publicis Groupe's Starcom MediaVest Worldwide announced they were broadening their upfront services to include online buys.
During the past year, a number of large online publishers have been holding de facto upfronts but in a low-profile way that drew no attention to the activity. Weather.com now plans to take that effort to the next level with its very public, city-by-city road show and coordinated promotions.
Mr. Green pointed out that he didn't consider this new campaign an upfront auction because the inventory sale is not occurring over a set period of time like TV's upfront.
In past years, online publishers wouldn't hear about marketers' plans for the coming year until very late because online was most often a spur-of-the-moment buy that involved a sudden shift of funds from other parts of an ad budget, Mr. Green said.
That trend has now changed, according to media buyers. Several said that the improving economy, the stabilizing Internet marketplace and the documented effectiveness of online marketing programs have made interactive more of a full-fledged part of mainstream marketers' longer-term media planning and buying mix.
"It's not universal yet, but it is evolving in that direction," said Jeff Marshall, senior VP-managing director of Starcom IP.
Weather.com's high-profile move makes good sense, said Greg Smith, director-media at Carat Interactive. "The majority of Weather.com is commodity inventory. It makes sense for them to lock up advertisers upfront. The question is can advertisers get a better deal upfront or later on?"
At the same time it hypes online ad-buying opportunities, the Weather.com road show is also designed to promote the expanding content strategy that is making the Web site a news service that is as much about lifestyle issues as it is about weather, Mr. Green said.
Weather.com features lifestyle areas for golf and ski, health, home and garden, business and leisure travel and driving. A fitness area just launched. A pets section is planned and a weddings page is under consideration.
"We want to keep visitors informed, engaged and loyal," Mr. Green said. "We are pushing special-interest inventory more than ever before."