Where The Surfers Are

Online ad messages are now finding users, instead of the reverse.
If knowing everything there is to know about Pop-Tarts doesn’t seem like a good use of time, you can imagine how this truism of the consumer/marketer relationship presents a problem for packaged goods companies, and others, who wish to market their products on the Internet. But as evidenced by a Pop-Tarts slot machine game that appeared earlier this year on the Comedy Central site (www.comedycentral.com), marketers are now finding methods other than building Web sites to reach their target audiences. The game, created for the Kellogg’s product by Leo Burnett unit Giant Step, Chicago, appeared alongside the comedy site’s own collection of games.
With banner click-through rates seldom climbing out of the single digits, a growing number of companies are branding themselves online by syndicating content from their Web sites to other sites or featuring sponsors’s content on theirs.
The idea is to connect with consumers where they’re already paying attention rather than luring them away from the site they’ve chosen to visit. As with many online advertising trends, there have been many attempts to coin a term for it. Kyle Shannon, co-founder of Agency.com, New York, calls the concept “intermedia.” John Young, chief creative officer of Poppe Tyson, New York, prefers “kinetic marketing”; and Gregory Galloway, who heads Giant Step’s online efforts, describes it as “content nesting.”
In point of fact, the trend may harken back to good old-fashioned advertising, in which the marketing message lies amidst the editorial content.
“If media is: you find the audience,” Agency.com’s Shannon explains, “intermedia is: the audience finds you.” Agency.com has produced “sitelets” or single-screen, branded sites for clients that link off destination sites. These mini-sites include Performancedriving.com for Allied Signal, Lifeadvice.com for MetLife and a British Airways London destination site.
But the gambit is working for content providers as well, who have just as much of a need as advertisers to publicize their services online. In the past two months sixdegrees, New York, an online networking community, has inked deals to distribute parts of its network, including a personalized posting service called “my bulletin board,” with job sites and special interest communities.
“It’s a big step beyond advertising because it is essentially setting up franchises,” says Nicole Berlyn, vice president of marketing. “It gives somebody direct access to sixdegrees [content].” Job site Online Career Center, Indianapolis, Ind., and CollegeBeat, Hudson, Mass., both feature sixdegrees content in revenue-sharing deals.
“We believe that it’s important to have sort of a network perspective on [the site],” says Emma Friman, vice president of business strategy and strategic alliances at OCC.
For CollegeBeat’s site, located at www.collegebeat.com, sixdegrees provides “my bulletin board” and has created a “Keep in Touch” database of alumni, high school friends and other people students want to locate.
Jen Revis Snider, vice president of marketing at CollegeBeat, says the site works with Classifieds 2000 and other sponsors that provide “a lot of functionality and tools for our users without [us] having to go and develop it.”
Those who syndicate advertising content also feel these reciprocal relationships are key. “[You can] build something really appealing and really attractive and it’s also meaningful,” says Young of Poppe Tyson, which last month merged with Westport, Conneticut-based Modem Media. “I could go write War and Peace and put it up on my site or I could go license War and Peace and put it on my site.” He believes syndicating others’ content is more efficient than devoting the company’s own resources to developing new content.
Young also admits consumers are jaded when it comes to checking out online ads. “The thing about a banner is that someone looks at it and they know exactly what it is,” he says.
Instead, the agency’s clients have been utilizing a more distributive promotion model, including sponsorships. For instance, for Johnson & Johnson, the agency syndicated content about babies to Parentsoup and Baby.com.
“It’s intersecting [with] consumers where they are instead of trying to force them all to go to one place,” Young says.
“The trend right now is differentiation. If you’re up there and all your competitors are up there, what’s going to make someone come to your site vs. your competitor’s site?” he continues. “It’s more distributed content. Instead of big, large megasites, it’s being at all the key places along the path.”
Giant Step’s Galloway says that for his company, the decision to syndicate advertising content “… came out of noticing general trends on the Web. It seemed like people were going to destination sites.” Conversely, people weren’t going to marketers’ attempts at making their own sites popular destinations.
Instead, the agency looked for something about their clients that could be relevant elsewhere, which gave rise to the Pop-Tarts slot machine game on Comedy Central. The game offered players a chance to win a free case of the product.
The most important aspect, as well as the biggest benefit to syndicated content, is not disrupting the user’s time online. “Our hopes are that it is enhancing the user experience,” Galloway says. “We’re not taking them out of the environment they came to Comedy Central for in the first place.”
Mark Silber, vice president and executive creative director of Grey Interactive, New York, which has done similar campaigns for Procter & Gamble and Dell Computer, echoed those sentiments.
“We think that it fits in with our vision of what users online are doing,” he says. “They’re task-oriented. It’s different than watching television. People are actually using the Web in whatever they’re doing.
“We think if we can make our content part of the task they’re trying to accomplish online … we’re pretty confident it’s going to be more effective,” he says, adding, “We like to do the thing software companies do very well–build it once and use it multiple times.”
With much early success, it is expected the practice will continue. “From a branding perspective, traffic perspective, membership building perspective … it’s far and away more effective than just banner swaps,” says sixdegrees’ Berlyn. “It works into a user’s lifestyle and Webstyle a little more.”
“Use of the medium for pure branding is going to get increasingly sophisticated,” predicts Agency.com’s Shannon. “The line between editorial and advertising is going to continue to blur From a consumer point of view, from an advertising point of view, from a client point of view, it’s actually a very positive thing.”