A word from our sponsor

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For years, internet publishers have been trying to encourage consumers to pay subscription fees for their content. Now, one publisher thinks it has a solution to the problem: have a marketer foot the bill instead.

Salon.com has signed DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes-Benz USA as the first advertiser to use an "ultramercial," a new, rich-media ad designed to allow Web sites to provide sponsored access to subscription-only content. By watching the Mercedes ad, consumers can get a one-day free pass to view all of Salon.com's paid content.

"The advertiser gets to reach a demographic they want to reach, where the target audience says, `Yes, I'll view your commercial and interact with it,' " says Cheryl Lucanegro, Salon's senior VP-ad sales.

If someone clicks a link to a Salon Premium article, a message appears offering the opportunity to view the Mercedes ad and get a one-day free trial. There's also an option to subscribe by paying an annual or monthly fee. Clicking a box labeled "free sponsored access now" launches the ad.

Mercedes is partnering with technology company Ultramercial to launch the format, which requires users to click through several "pages" in order to view the ad.

360 DEGREES OF E-CLASS

In the Mercedes ad, which launched last week, the reader can move his or her mouse over marked spots in photos of the Mercedes E-Class to learn more about the car and turn it 360 degrees. Users can exit the ad early, but that cancels the free one-day pass.

Kara Cornelis, marketing manager at Critical Mass, Chicago, Mercedes' interactive agency, in which Omnicom Group owns a minority stake, says, "We've been testing a lot of different types of rich media, and it's performed very well for Mercedes." Mercedes didn't return calls for comment.

Salon visitors will get lots of exposure to Mercedes in coming weeks. Critical Mass purchased 1 million Ultramercial impressions over six weeks as part of a package that also includes standard banner ads. Ultramercial packages on Salon cost between $25,000 and $100,000, Ms. Lucanegro says.

Salon currently has 43,000 subscribers who pay either $30 or $18.50 a year for Salon Premium, depending on whether they want to view ads or not. About 30% of Salon's content is subscription-only.

The ad concept sounds so obvious that it's surprising it's not already in the arsenal of online publishers. Some sites, such as MarketWatch.com, have offered free real-time stock quotes in exchange for viewing an ad. But you may start seeing more of it.

"I think the idea of having a sponsor bringing you paid content, or one day's free paid content, is a brilliant one," says Paul Iaffaldano, chief revenue officer for Weather Channel Interactive.

Doug Weaver, president of online sales consultancy Upstream Group, cautions that the content must be good enough that consumers will not feel like they were wasting their time. "Advertisers today are not screaming, `Guarantee me an impression.' They're saying, `Guarantee me the customer's attention.' "

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