IQ News: Web Portals, As Seen On TV

Portals Are Using The Boob Tube To Attract Users.
Julie Bauer has her hard hat on, and she’s sweating. It’s hot out here at the Hoover Dam, the Nevada structure that’s the largest dam in the world. Bauer, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, San Francisco, is supervising the production of six TV spots for
The online search service-turned-portal from CNET, San Francisco, traded NBC 40 percent ownership earlier this year for cash–and coveted promotional air time–on the leading TV network. The Snap campaign production schedule, just five weeks from storyboards to air, has been grueling, Bauer says. “It’s always trying, and working with a media client can be especially tough. There’s a lot riding on this.”
Though Snap was the only portal site to pick the endless tiled tunnels and cavernous vaults beneath the dam as a setting to depict its service’s vastness, Bauer is not alone in sweating it out. Nearly all the portals (nee search engines), including Infoseek, Yahoo and Lycos-owned Wired Digital, have already or are readying TV campaigns to promote their sites as the place for wandering Internet eyeballs to come, and maybe, stay for awhile.
In the Snap commercials, which launched in mid-September, has become a literal machine, “a search engine as big as the Web itself,” as the theme line says. There’s a joke going around on the set. Bertina Ceccarelli, Snap vice president of brand development and research, puts it this way: “If my mother saw this commercial, she’d say, ‘Wow, Snap is really big.’ She won’t get the joke, but the commercial will still work.”
This idea of putting one over on Mom seems to take the sting out of something that was hip and cool but is now becoming relentlessly mainstream. This inside joke also points up the quandary of portal sites as they go after virgin eyeballs: How to explain what the hell they do and what use they are to those who have never used them.
The driver of the campaigns, of course, is the hunger for a bigger share of that juicy online advertising pie. A site such as CNET, for example, might have the edge on attracting advertisers who want to reach their particular demo, but why stop there? With Internet usage doubling every hundred days according to the U.S. Dept. of Commerce, there are too many newbies and advertisers who still have to choose a portal.
If all works according to each portal’s ad plan, if and when couch potato consumers come online a glimmer of TV-generated brand awareness may influence the first place they point their browsers. This fact of portal marketing may best be illustrated by Snap’s new, populist surname. Gone are the mentions of geeky CNET, under which the service didn’t exactly flourish–it’s now being referred to as “ from NBC.”
“I expect that new users will come onto Snap because they’ve seen the ads with the co-branding of NBC, an association they trust and are familiar with,” predicts Ceccarelli. So far, it seems to be working. “We’ve seen tremendous gains in our traffic since we’ve been advertising on television,” she said.
The campaign puts head-to-head with Yahoo, a pioneer in consumer advertising when it broke its “Do You Yahoo!?” campaign in 1997. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company is currently floating a new rotation of TV and radio spots created by Black Rocket, San Francisco, in major markets. In producing the new ads, the service is the first to deal with melding the old search engine model to the new multiple-use portal, which usually includes chat and email in addition to search services.
“Our current positioning of Yahoo as the only place that anyone would need to go to find anything on the Internet is being expanded to also including ‘finding anyone,'” says Karen Edwards, vice president of brand advertising.
Redwood City, Calif.-based Excite will soon go mass market too. Though the service has advertised before, just last week it hired McCann-Erickson and Ketchum Advertising vet Fred Siegel to upgrade its marketing. Siegel, who has worked on mega-brands such as Coca-Cola and most recently worked at QVC, will handle a new branding campaign aimed at what the company calls “the next phase of consumer adoption of the Internet.”
Still, the portals with the easiest awareness challenge may be those who are aligned with a major media company–preferably a TV network. Earlier this year, Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Infoseek did a dream deal with the Walt Disney Company’s Buena Vista Internet Group, Burbank, Calif. to develop the Go Network, which will launch before year’s end. Go Network will attempt to offer one of the widest selections of content on the Web.
As such, it will create a broad branding campaign that will incorporate print, online and TV ads developed by Go Network lead agency CKS. “We go after a very broad audience that is segmented once they come into our portal,” explains Barak Berkowitz, Infoseek vice president of marketing. Given Go’s ties to Disney-owned ABC, it seems likely that it will receive the same on-air promotional time that Snap has from NBC.
Not everyone shares the optimism that the portals and their promotion will make them the public’s gateways of choice. Wendy Goldberg, a spokesperson for America Online, Dulles, Va., said she isn’t worried, pointing to studies showing AOL had 47 percent unaided awareness for Internet services.
However, it’s worth noting that last week the 12 million member online service struck a wide-ranging deal with CBS SportsLine. Among the benefits to AOL of the deal? Promotional time on CBS.
Eric Greenberg, chairman of Scient, a San Francisco online business services provider, says portals might be a flash in the pan as new users become more sophisticated. “Portals are like NBC, CBS and ABC in the old days,” he says. “They were all things to all people–news, sports, family and mature entertainment.” If Web portals can’t differentiate themselves, he says, they’ll lose out to sites with more targeted content.
Of course, portal mania has spawned paranoia as well as ad campaigns. Such players as Lycos, Netscape’s Netcenter, and LookSmart, San Francisco, did not return calls requesting comment about their marketing plans.
Perhaps they’re thinking along the lines of Tom Evans, CEO and president of Santa Monica, Calif.-based GeoCities. Evans confirmed that GeoCities is readying a consumer advertising campaign, but would say only, “I’m sure everybody would love to know what our plans are. We could tell you all about them, but then we’d have to kill you.”
What a way to go.