CNET aims to own category

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To conquer the Internet, CNET is looking for help from some old-line media, such as television, radio, print and outdoor.

On July 1, the San Francisco-based online technology portal launched a $100 million advertising campaign. The goal is to communicate that CNET is "The source for computers and technology" to everyone making a decision about technology, whether it's an information technology manager or personal computer aficionado looking for the latest peripherals.

"With this campaign, we are seizing the opportunity to claim ownership of our category, clarify our offering for this immense audience and become the shorthand for computers and technology, in the same way that ESPN and MTV have become synonymous with sports and music," Annie Williams, CNET's VP-marketing, said in a statement.

A comparison might also be made with the strategy of, which has become synonymous with books on the Internet via a multimedia brand-building campaign.

In the technology niche, CNET competes with an established tech brand name: ZDNet, Ziff-Davis' online portal. Both offer industry news, software downloads and advice on buying PCs, printers and other tech products. CNET currently trails ZDNet in unique visitors, according to New York-based Media Metrix's Web audience ratings for June. In that month, the ZDNet sites tallied 8.6 million visitors, while CNET was not far behind, attracting 8.3 million visitors.

While Ms. Williams said CNET wants to seize this category, she also claimed that CNET's main competition is not ZDNet. CNET and ZDNet each scored a paltry 4% unaided awareness among Internet users in CNET's research, Ms. Williams said. The company's research indicated that instead of turning to either online technology portal for help in buying a PC, for instance, people asked an acquaintance they considered a tech expert.

A campaign with an edge

The advertising campaign focuses on persuading tech decisionmakers to turn not to their friends, but to CNET for information on which products to buy. Using edgy humor, one TV ad depicts a man asking his doctor if the PC he's considering is what he really needs. The doctor responds by pulling on a rubber glove, squirting out some lubricant, and saying, "Let's do a little investigating, shall we?" The message is clear: It's more sensible and less painful to consult CNET.

Citron Haligman Bedecarre, San Francisco, developed the campaign. Ms. Williams said the boundary-pushing approach is perfectly appropriate for an online company like CNET to reflect what she called the Wild West nature of cyberspace.

"If any effective advertising is going to reflect the core flavor of the Internet, it's got to have some edge, some aggressiveness, some innovations," she said. "There's so much clutter out there. There are a million .coms on television. How can you break through that? With humor."

Although CNET's stock tumbled when the marketing spending was announced, analysts have supported CNET's plan of attack. Michael LeConey, Internet analyst with Security Capital Trading, New York, said CNET's decision is a no-brainer: "The message is real clear on the major Internet companies: They want a brand name."

Barry Briggs, ZDNet VP-advertising sales and marketing, disputes the wisdom of a broad marketing campaign, saying he will stick with his three-pronged marketing plan, although with Ziff-Davis currently for sale and in limbo, it is unclear whether he has much of a choice.

Mr. Briggs' marketing approach includes customer acquisition, mainly by promoting ZDNet through Ziff-Davis' other media, such as PC Magazine and ZDTV. But his approach also encompasses customer retention. He said Media Metrix figures indicate ZDNet is "stickier" than CNET, with the average ZDNet user spending 19.7 minutes a month on the site and the average CNET user spending 10.7 minutes a month.

Mr. Briggs also pointed to ZDNet's alliance strategy. The portal is the tech information provider for Yahoo!, Excite and the Go Network.

CNET, too, has forged some impressive online relationships. It is the tech information provider for The New York Times Web site and the exclusive provider of tech buying guides to America Online.

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