Advertising in 2007 Online Holiday Gift Guides

It’s hard to believe we’re now officially in the fourth quarter. For many companies, particularly merchants, it’s make-or-break time. Perhaps your local stores have already started displaying December holiday decorations and merchandise alongside Halloween selections. Craziness. Many online publishers have long been preparing for Q4, eagerly anticipating the crush of online shoppers searching for the latest and greatest gift ideas.

Enter the holiday gift guide. More sites than ever are offering content areas dedicated to helping users find the right gift. And it doesn’t hurt that these popular areas are often ad-supported.

Evolving the Holiday Gift Guide

Holiday-related content dates back to the earliest Web publishers, but formally named gift guides probably first appeared about seven or eight years ago. Most publishers agree gift guides’ popularity grows each year as consumers turn to the guides to avoid crowded shopping malls and find shortcuts to gift-giving. Consumers are also attracted to gift guides because they contain deals and promotions. Last year, Yahoo saw its guide traffic grow 110 percent over 2005.

Accordingly, holiday gift guides evolve because of increased consumer demand and changing needs. “As online shopping has become more popular, we have been able to modify our approach to fit into what consumers want…Gift ideas have become more popular, especially tied to personalities (like the Fashionista),” explains Megan Morse of AOL Shopping. MSN Shopping has created Eco-Minded and Trendsetter personality types. Both MSN and Better Homes and Gardens specifically collect user feedback to help target gift selections or improve usability year after year.

While most gift guides will launch in November, a few sites, like Better Homes and Gardens, will launch theirs in mid-October, anticipating early shopping research and price checking. Users can expect this year’s gift guides to offer more selection assistance (Yahoo’s “Shop by Color”) and recommendation features than ever. In addition to its stalwart “Top 10 Gift Ideas,” tech site Cnet is again offering its Black Monday “Holiday Help Desk,” a live, eight-hour marathon show where users can call in to talk to Cnet editors for assistance. Cnet’s daily countdown feature, in which broad questions are answered, will now be answered in video rather than text format.

To complement its main gift guide, AOL has developed specialty gift guides, like “Gifts That Say You Splurged,” “What to Get the Guy Who Has Everything,” “Hostess Gifts,” and “Sexy Gifts.” For procrastinators, AOL will have guides to virtual gift cards and charitable contributions (“Gifts That Give Back”) — smart!

Capitalizing on the consumer-generated media trend, womensforum.com will have everyday women “offering strategies to help other women enjoy a meaningful, festive, and stress-free holiday season without breaking the bank,” says president and cofounder Jodi Beck.

What’s in It for Advertisers?

Holiday gift guides have grown to represent big bucks for publishers. And the more complex and integrated the sponsorship opportunities, the earlier the sales process begins. Some publishers start working with sponsors as early as Q2.

While several publishers, like MSN Shopping and Reader’s Digest, will offer run-of-channel display ad opportunities, many gift guides will have exclusive sponsors. For example, Capital One will be the title sponsor of Yahoo’s gift guide, though Yahoo is also creating channel gift guides in Yahoo Local and Yahoo Personals to buy into.

Other sites offer multiple sponsorship levels. Cnet has “super sponsors,” which sponsor the whole gift guide, and category sponsors. Its countdown will be sponsored with different daily advertisers’ video pre-roll ads. Womensforum.com’s title sponsor will have its own branded channel within the main site’s navigation and its own microsite; other sponsors’ ads will run within specific lifestyle channels, integrated into holiday-themed content and e-mail newsletters. AOL is selling merchandising opportunities within its articles and blogs but is also allowing sponsor retailers to set up their own boutiques to create an in-portal direct-shopping experience.

With launch dates fast approaching, you might think gift guides have long since been sold out. But many publishers are still selling inventory, particularly those that have expanded their gift guide content for 2007. Though most publishers publicly decline to disclose their minimum buy-in costs, the range for average six-week-long sponsorships seems to be $10,000 to $160,000.

Most sites aren’t yet previewing their holiday gift guides, but AOL offers a sneak peek of its holiday toy promotion.

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