Case Study: GuruNet

I have a confession to make: I have an addiction. Though Internet-related, it’s not email (the usual and obvious suspect), or even something as tempting as cool rich media ads. I’m addicted to a desktop application called GuruNet.

A couple years ago, a colleague tipped me off to this software, then called Atomica. I downloaded the trial version. As a search and reference tool that includes a dictionary, a thesaurus, and an encyclopedia, it’s nothing to write home about. What makes GuruNet special is its ability to access to much more obscure sources of information: tech and legal dictionaries; a directory of poets and operas; even a library of famed athletes, cataloged by sport. It can turn online content into searchable hypertext, eliminating the need to leave a site to look up the meaning of a term or word.

Not surprisingly, GuruNet features something else: advertising.

Like many organizations that sell desktop software (e.g., contextual advertising companies), GuruNet’s financial is based on subscription-style fees, as well as running ads in a matter that, theoretically, shouldn’t upset consumers. If you’re willing to purchase a license to use GuruNet (for the low, low price of $39.99), you won’t be exposed to any ads. If you prefer to use the free version, you’re barraged by banners. Viewing them is the content fee.

A desktop application like this one affords media buyers placement opportunity. As with banners on an instant messaging program, such as AIM, one major advantage to advertising in this space lies in the amount of time users spend interacting with the product and, consequently, are exposed to the ads. Even if a user views an ad peripherally and doesn’t bother to interact, the placements can have a profound branding effect. This attracts countless advertisers and media buyers.

But there’s a risk inherent to this type of opportunity. Users who don’t understand the need for advertising aren’t likely to respond well to ads, no matter they appear. When there’s a banner in your face every time you look up a synonym, you’re even less likely to adopt a positive opinion of the advertiser.

Media suppliers can take steps to improve the chances ads on their properties will be viewed favorably. Frequently rotating ads prevent users from becoming bored. Inserting the occasional innocuous house ad also tends to ease frustration. GuruNet, unfortunately, chose a different route.

When downloading the free version of the product, users receive a seven-day, ad-free trial of the entire program. Then, the bonus content is confiscated and the ads appear. The message attached to the banners? “Upgrade to the full version of GuruNet to remove this box and gain half a million topics.”

Even for users willing to tolerate ads in exchange for content, the message strongly implies the ads are an annoyance. It suggests users want to remove the pesky banners. The media supplier essentially sabotages its advertisers’ messages. Although the majority of revenues may come from licensing fees (the company markets the product for home, corporate/commercial, and nonprofit organization use), GuruNet relies on advertisers to finance the free version. Yet the company makes it impossible for media buyers to recommend the placement to clients.

In GuruNet’s defense, the company told me it’s just now starting to develop an advertising program and will fine-tune it in coming months. Meantime, I suppose we should thank GuruNet for a valuable lesson: Before you invest in any desktop application — no matter how much you admire the product — be sure the company behind it is helping, not hindering, your cause.

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