But given the frequent anonymity of Web access, along with the fact that CEOs and chief information officers probably don't have much time to spend surfing sites, the question arises: Can advertisers reach high-level executives on the Web? And if not, then whom are they reaching?
Sites in the dark
The reality is that most sites don't yet know precisely who they're reaching, although new research may soon help figure that out.
"How do you know if you're really reaching your business targets with a Web site? To a certain extent, you don't," says Caroline Riby, VP-media director of Saatchi & Saatchi Business Communications, Rochester, N.Y.
While there are various degrees of research available to measure the composition of specific business targets visiting sites, Ms. Riby says planning ad buys on sites often is an intuitive process that is based largely on the strength of the site's content and a belief in whether it appeals to the people the marketer is trying to reach.
"We are bugging a lot of the measurement companies to include more data about job titles, job functions, SIC codes and company size, so that we can know exactly who we are reaching," says David Yoder, media director of Anderson & Lembke, San Francisco.
"Right now, it's frustrating because most of the research efforts are consumer-driven. And that's pretty ironic when you consider that most of the advertising dollars on the Web right now are earmarked for business."
To guarantee that the content will appeal to a marketer's target, Ms. Riby says it often needs to be customized for the marketer. For example, she cites a buy she made for Du Pont on the American Chemical Society's Chemical Engineering News site.
"We put Du Pont chemists in their chat rooms, which enabled us to associate Du Pont with the society. And it was not the kind of content that anyone other than chemical engineers would be interested in."
While industrial content on the Web may be somewhat self-selecting, business media buyers still would like better proof of delivery.
There are signs that third-party researchers are beginning to make some headway in terms of measuring the composition and audience characteristics of users visiting business sites.
Atlanta-based research company RelevantKnowledge this month will release the first data from a nationally projectable panel of Internet users, which eventually will include demographic breaks detailing job titles, function and responsibility.
By the end of this year, New York-based Media Metrix, another general market measurement company that was formerly known as PC Meter, will release the first syndicated data from its business panel.
Neither service will provide the level of detail business marketers would expect from traditional media, but they will be producing more insights on the overall traffic flow of business users to a wide range of sites.
Initially, Media Metrix has no plans to provide data on the job functions or areas of business responsibility of its sample, but it will offer breakdowns on the time spent accessing Web sites while at work vs. at home.
Media Metrix's general market sample consists of about 10,000 Internet households. Its business panel currently has about 1,000 people and is expected to expand to as many as 2,500 by year's end.
"We may launch a business-to-business element to this product later, which would provide research on certain job functions and responsibilities," says Steve Coffey, vice chairman, Media Metrix.
In the meantime, the database will provide some gross demographic descriptions that could be used to target business users, such as household income breaks and descriptors like professional/owner/managerial.
While RelevantKnowledge does not plan to offer a separate business panel, it is designing its primary panel to be nationally projectable and representative of all Internet users, including specific business types.
While these databases will clearly advance media planning for Web sites, it is unlikely that these proxy measures will be used for the same proof-of-performance for the Internet that A.C. Nielsen Corp.'s sample-based ratings is for TVÅ"at least not by business-to-business marketers.
Business sites increasingly are relying on registration and audits to prove to advertisers exactly who their visitors are.
"The only way that you can definitively prove that people of a CIO or a CEO caliber are looking at a site, is if the site requires registration to access it," says Peter Black, senior VP-marketing of BPA International, New York, which conducts third-party audits of both registered and un-registered business sites.
Mr. Black says the level of detail and scrutiny of the registration process vary by site, but that some of the most highly targeted sites require rigorous levels of registration.
"Network World Fusion has a very detailed registration form for anyone coming into their site," says Mr. Black. "It not only asks what your title is and what your specific area of responsibility is, but how much control you have over purchasing decisions and specifically what systems you have bought."
While the site's registration process may be arduous, it is still possible to register falsely as a CIO with authority for purchasing millions of dollars worth of systems and software. (As a test, we did so, returning to the site later with the registered user name and password.)
BPA audits include follow-up telemarketing efforts that spot-check registrants for validity, says the BPA's Mr. Black.
Fusion promotes its site registrations directly from Network World magazine, so a significant number of the site's registrants are prequalified, says Ann Roskey, director of online services at Network World Inc.
Roughly 45% of Fusion's subscribers currently come from the magazine.
Other business Web publishers maintain rigorous registration processes, including The Economist's d.Comm. Still, content appears to be the best discriminator attracting qualified users.
"In the end, the only thing we can guarantee is our content," says CIO Publisher Joseph Levy. "You never know who's surfing out there and who will come in and out of your site, but chances are they will not stick around very long if it is not compelling content for them."
While CIO's CIO.COM is audited by the BPA, it is not accessible purely by registration, though some of its content areas are only accessible that way.
While Web technology could conceivably be developed that guarantees user demographics with more pinpoint accuracy, business publishers and media buyers say it need not be that scientific a process.
"In looking at sites, you can pretty much estimate the types of people who are going into them," says Anderson & Lembke's Mr. Yoder. "It's not unlike how we evaluate a new magazine that doesn't have an audit or a readership study. You can judge a book by its cover."