About.com to Roll Out Pay-For-Surfing Program

Less than a week after pay-for-surfing company mValue closed its doors permanently, About.com said this week that it has brought in a company to launch what is essentially a pay-to-surf proposition of its own.

About tapped ClickRebates, a private-label incentives marketer, to provide the back-end support for its new “MoveAbout” sponsored surfing initiative, which is scheduled to roll out November 1, 2000.

A floating window — the companies call it a “microportal” — will be branded by About and will contain links to About.com content, community features (like chat) and ads. Users will be compensated at an undisclosed rate for surfing with the window and visiting featured sites.

“The MoveAbout program represents a benefit for our users, for our advertisers, and for us,” said About president and chief operations officer Bill Day. “About users who participate in this service will have easier access to their favorite content and services, deepening our relationship with our existing customers.”

The program also includes a referral component that rewards users for recommending the service.

“On the acquisition side, there is an outsourced viral marketing program — consumers gain rewards for referring friends and family. On the retention side, there is a channel from About, a microportal, on the desktop,” ClickRebates chief marketing officer Chris Yeh said. “Having the ability to keep with you on your desktop content from your favorite Web site — users have self-selected and value that.”

Despite the pay-for-surf industry’s apparent weaknesses, ClickRebates said that their tool “virtually” pays for itself through revenue sharing.

“By choosing ClickRebates’ unique technology, About is choosing an aggressive permission-based marketing tool,” Yeh said. “Our technology will keep the About brand on the forefront of its users’ minds, as well as increase the frequency About’s advertisers’ ads are viewed by consumers as they navigate on their computers.”

About will promote its new service exclusively throughout its own properties. Yeh said that the companies expect to be handling more than a million people through the MoveAbout service next year.

Though About and ClickRebates will share revenues from sales on the microportal, the companies maintain that consumers and advertisers are the real beneficiaries of the pact — since users who opt-into the program provide demographic data,

“About currently targets ads on the basis of content. We come in and provide content along the lines of demographic data,” Yeh said. “That increases the value for advertisers: they get a better return. The consumer is able to see more relevant advertising — and is rewarded in the form of monetary compensation.”

It’s an interesting, and somewhat risky, customer acquisition move for About: since the model’s inception, skeptics have wondered whether advertising-sponsored surfing could be sustained.

So far, the industry has been proving the skeptics right. Hayward, Calif.,-based AllAdvantage revamped its payment model several times, first reducing the maximum amount users could earn, and then offering sweepstakes entries as an alternative to cash.

Last year, the company also came under criticism for delays in payments. AllAdvantage also recently launched a number of ways to earn money aside from ad sales, including software distribution and technology licensing. The company also filed for an IPO earlier this year, which it withdrew in June.

Los Angeles firm mValue this week confirmed rumors that it has ceased operations entirely. The company paid users cash or incentives in return for surfing the Web and viewing ads, and similarly to AllAdvantage, reduced payment amounts and then shifted to an entirely sweepstakes-entry reward system.

Yeh said he’s well aware of the troubles experienced by AllAdvantage and other — and is quick to differentiate ClickRebates’ model from its troubled competitors.

“What they’re about is essentially trying to arbitrage the value of advertising some way, and to generate a revenue out of this,” Yeh said. “We’re about generating value for our partners, and value for ourselves.” “It has to be a sustainable, positive cashflow business, not customer acquisition for the sake of acquisition. You have to get growth at a reasonable price.”

ClickRebates is betting heavily that a private-label deal can provide the necessary growing conditions — namely, a partner with deep pockets and a built-in customer base — that an emerging enterprise like sponsored surfing requires to be sustainable.

“The whole concept of doing these private label deals really fits with direction the Internet is going. Free email and Web calendaring didn’t necessarily make as much sense as stand-alone services, but they do as part of a standalone suite. We think all the major portals are going to adopt these reward services.”

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