May 9th, 2007
As Web Ads Grow, Sites Get Trickier About Targeting You
By Lee Gomes
Wall Street Journal
It may not be the bad old days of online hucksterism, when inescapable pop-up ads used the promise of computerized voyeurism to pitch cheap surveillance cameras. But as the Internet continues to draw ad dollars away from television and print media, advertisers are getting bolder and more graphic in their ads, and Web sites are learning which tricks they can and can’t pull to get visitors to watch them.
Advertisers say the biggest thing in online ads these days is “rich media,” a catchall phrase for those ads whose contents shimmy and shake. LowerMyBills.com is notorious for its endless loops of silhouetted dancers and surprised office workers. Other ads come alive when you move the mouse over them, ballooning to claim even more screen real estate to sell cars, movies, laundry soap and more.
Rich media also mean video. Some of the most sophisticated of the new breed of Web ads are online versions of familiar TV commercials, sitting in freeze frame, waiting for you to click them into coming alive.
Video is popular on Web sites everywhere, and not just for the advertisers. News sites are adding video reports as supplements to their traditional print stories. They do this in large part because they can charge advertisers more to sponsor them—up to triple the rates associated with traditional text stories.
Advertisers, in turn, are attracted to video because it’s familiar terrain; they can show a version of the tested commercials they broadcast.
Often, this is done in a “pre-roll,” the brief ad segment users have to sit through before viewing the non-commercial video they wanted to see in the first place. Most of the time, the fast-forward button on the Web player is disabled.
One current debate among Web sites involves how long these pre-rolls should run. Because of our ever-shortening attention spans, 30 seconds is considered the upper limit.
ESPN, the sports site that is one of the busiest on the Web, is using a deal with Gatorade to dispense with the pre-roll, but still sneak in an ad during a short online version of its popular evening SportsCenter program. An ESPN announcer starts the clip by mentioning the day’s big story, then says he’ll be back shortly. There follows a 10-second or 15-second Gatorade commercial, usually an athlete talking about sports. The ESPN show resumes.
To sell these ads, Web sites need “inventory,” or Web pages, on which the ads will be placed. Web sites have lately been taking steps to increase their inventory of pages, notes Michael Cassidy, chief executive of Undertone Networks, an online ad-consulting service, to compensate for the slowing growth of total Web users as the medium matures. Hence, sites are expanding into seemingly unrelated areas, like the “Pets” section of the Weather Channel’s site, which features, among more meteorological offerings, pictures of viewers’ dogs and cats.
Web sites are also creating hooks, like the Top-10 lists, slide shows and photo collections now common online. You might think that you are clicking through the “10 Cool Tech Toys of the Year.” In fact, you’re helping a Web site add 10 new pages to its salable inventory.
Other sites are borrowing a technique from local TV newscasts: those teasers that give you a taste of a story, but make you return later in the show to hear the rest. For example, atop Yahoo’s popular home page there often will be a tease of a headline, requiring you to click to find out the full story. A recent example: the news, in big type, that the father of Anna Nicole Smith’s baby had been revealed via DNA tests. You needed to click to a new page to find out it was Larry Birkhead. In the process, Yahoo sold two pages of ads, not just one.
Yahoo admits to the practice but says it uses it selectively, to avoid irritating users, and only on news stories that aren’t especially serious.
Another trick some news sites use to increase inventory is to break up even a short story text into two or three parts, forcing readers to click through pages to get all of it. Readers can circumvent this by formatting the story for printing.
Many of the changes involving advertising are less obvious to users and involve the ability of sites to take advantage of the fact that they know more about you than you’d probably wish, and thus to target ads to specific users. WeatherChannel—the Net’s No. 2 news site after Yahoo News—allows users to specify the locale for which they seek a forecast.
Peter Greene, head of ad sales at the site, says experience has taught that users who enter in a ZIP Code are probably residents of the area, while those who enter the name of the city are likely to be in the process of traveling there. Its ad-sales people are thus able to sell different ads based on the two kinds of searches: local retailers for the ZIP Coders and airlines or hotels for the travelers.
Even as they become more aggressive with advertising, most reputable Web sites say they are careful not to diminish their brands by going too far. CNN, for example, has in the past year doubled the number of videos it serves every day. But it limits to one the number of ads that appear at the top of home page. “We call that ad elegance,” said Greg D’Alba, ad director at the site.