New ad model crosses edit divide

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backers of a new model hope to tap one of the last ad-free frontiers of the Internet-the text of articles and message boards-in what they bill as the ultimate contextual advertising play. But the IntelliTXT system, which rolls out today, is drawing the ire of journalism purists and others who say it not only blurs the line between advertising and editorial-it erases it.

Vibrant Media is betting Web surfers will get accustomed to seeing green, double-underlined words sprinkled throughout articles and message board posts. Scroll over one of the green Intelli- TXT links on a 17-inch monitor and up pops a green-tinted 2-inch by 4-inch ad that looks like one of the ads in the right-hand column of a Google results page. Clicking on the link takes surfers to the advertiser's splash page. IntelliTXT tested since last year in about 100 online publications, including Hearst's Popular Mechanics and several technology, gaming and automotive sites.

But some journalism ethicists and industry watchers are seeing red, not green, charging editorial integrity and consumer preferences are likely casualties of IntelliTXT.

"It's like selling product placement in the middle of articles," said Kelly McBride, member of the ethics faculty at the Poynter Institute, a St. Petersburg, Fla., journalism think tank, of IntelliTXT. "I have a huge problem with that."

"If it looks like a pop-up, feels like a pop-up or interrupts like a pop-up, we might as well just assume consumers will outright hate and reject the format," said Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing officer of Intelliseek, a Cincinnati research firm that tracks online consumer buzz.

To Doug Stevenson, a former AOL executive and CEO of Vibrant Media, IntelliTXT is a natural extension of increasingly popular paid search ads on Google and elsewhere. Search only accounts for 5% of online page views, yet generates $2 billion in ads each year, he said. "The principle is to match a relevant advertiser with relevant content," Mr. Stevenson said. Vibrant Media shares revenue with online publishers based on pay for performance.

church and state

Publishers who've used IntelliTXT are aware of the "church/state issues," Mr. Stevenson said, but are addressing them by getting input from editors, restricting use to certain areas of their sites and posting information to inform readers about the green links. Some are shying from using the links on news pages, he said, but he believes IntelliTXT will be better received in feature and review sections.

Bob Gordon, president of the Auto Channel, an automotive-enthusiast site, said he's had no complaints from users since he started allowing IntelliTXT on his site last year. "I think most people understand and appreciate the links," he said.

Online consumer feedback about IntelliTXT so far appears light but negative, Mr. Blackshaw said. One message-board poster Intelliseek found on terms IntelliTXT "spam links," objecting not to the ads but to their irrelevance to stories where they appear. A poster on gripes about not being able to write "Jeep" without generating a pop-up ad.

"We've seen response rates 24 times that of banners," Mr. Stevenson said, indicating Web users like IntelliTXT better than other forms of online advertising they encounter.

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