Coming to Terms

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Just last week, The New York Times pronounced a new strategic era in the execution of web advertising. In a piece called Marketers Shift Tactics on Web Ads, (http://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/11/business/media/11ADCO.html?th) reporter Nat Ives offers a glowing review of the new “Luxurious Living” site created for Lexus by MSN. The site itself is a beauty: Lexus messaging and MSN services underlying a magazine about stuff well-heeled folks would apparently find interesting: Miles Davis, travel, home entertainment and, of course, that zany billionaire sports owner Mark Cuban.

The article throws in some examples of Meredith Publishing doing some similar custom-produced websites and decides that the whole thing is a major trend that is “a response to a rising chorus of disdain for online advertising clutter and intrusion.”

I have some problems with this.

Nothing wrong with the spirit and execution of the program. MSN has done a great job anticipating the needs of the customer and building a solution for them. I think it’s also smart how MSN has woven many of its own services and strengths into the content of “Luxurious Living.” But building custom sites for advertising clients isn’t a new idea, nor is it an economically viable solution for most publishers. And at best, it’s a well-paid diversion from the issues of “online advertising clutter and intrusion,” not an answer to them.

Custom sections or mini-sites have been around since the beginning. For years they were the core of iVillage’s business: they once built a site for Ford where iVillage readers could customize their own minivan. “Special advertising sections” have been part of magazines since at least the Truman administration, and in the 80s and 90s marketers even began publishing their own “zines.” who can forget Benetton’s Colors? (http://www.benetton.com/colors/) To an advertiser who just can’t find the appropriate “editorial environment” online, building a custom site with a publisher may well be a smart answer. But the practice raises some thorny issues.

Is it advertising? One might reasonably reply ‘who cares?’ But this is more than a semantic issue. It’s taken nearly a decade to convince marketers that building big elaborate sites and recruiting visitors through banners wasn’t the right idea. Instead, we told them, distributed advertising and integration with existing content are the answers: reach customers where they are, not where you wish they were! At the end of the day, if we build “custom sites” for clients, are we not reestablishing the clickthrough model in a new form?

Is it sustainable? Is there a viable business here for publishers? When you look past the top handful of media companies, you see organizations working hard to maintain strong editorial and technology platforms with smaller staffs than they had three years ago. Can they devote teams of people to generating paid content? If they do, what does this do to the quality and depth of their “regular” content? No print publication could survive on custom publishing alone. And no digital media company can either.

Is it creating new revenue? If this practice were indeed a trend, would companies like Lexus really start spending more money online than they did before? Or would we simply see a shift of “site building” dollars move from the hands of agencies into the hands of publishers? I’ve long believed that the top brass at major marketers authorize a “web budget” that includes both site production costs and media costs…and that site production eats up most of the dollars. The key to a robust online medium is to move money out of site production and into distributed advertising.

Is it true integration? As noted above, I give MSN high marks for execution: they’ve done a good job of linking out to many of their own services and populating the site with pretty good content. But “Luxurious Living” still feels like a world apart from the rest of MSN. Will I have to click on a banner to find the site? Will targeted e-mail tell me about it? Since I’m a prototypical Lexus customer, I’d suggest these are fair questions. When I think of integration, I see a seamless blending of the advertisers messaging into what the media site does well every day. Hats off to MSN for the job they’ve done, but I still think we should keep our eye on the ball here.

Does it fix the “clutter” problem? Truth is, we’ve got a medium that’s still a dark and dangerous place to most advertisers. (One could imagine the MSN 8 Butterfly Man shielding marketing executives from all the porn and clutter and three-card-Monte vendors as they size up their online ad options.) Should we be creating safe havens for sensitive advertisers or should we be focused on creating great sites that are uncluttered, well written and beautifully designed? Maybe these aren’t mutually exclusive. But then again, maybe they are. The strongest companies are always the most focused. Focusing both the creative resources and the sales effort on building and selling your own great content seems like the best course of action to me.

The message to the advertiser: There are great places to advertise on the web; places filled with strong content and loyal readers. You don’t need to build your own.

Send your comments and questions directly to Doug Weaver

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