Forbes.com Among Publishers Experimenting with Lead Gen

Online lead generation has gotten a bad name lately, but the process of harvesting information on interested consumers remains an accepted means of selling, and well-known brands continue to be associated with it. Forbes.com is one. The publisher has partnered with lead gen service Matchpoint to run form-based units on its site, allowing readers to connect with companies advertising online banking or credit card offers.

“Get Trading Sites to Compete for You!” screams one Matchpoint ad on Forbes.com placed alongside other lead-generating units such as a “Credit Card Center” powered by CreditCards.com and a “special advertising” drop-down list of links to an array of information request forms for mortgages, online colleges and life insurance.

Forbes.com acknowledged it is experimenting with lead gen advertising along with other new ad formats, but it is not a big part of its business, according to a company spokeswoman.

The Matchpoint ad forms require consumers to provide two data points: an e-mail address and zip code. Forms presented on the Matchpoint site, however, can include several additional questions determined by advertiser criteria in order to better qualify consumer leads. Through the pay-per-lead auction platform, advertisers place bids on leads matching their request.

“You get to make your bid contingent on the consumer answering a number of different questions,” said Matchpoint President Peter Adams.

Matchpoint gives Forbes.com and other publisher partners a cut of the revenue collected from advertisers bidding on sales leads their sites attract; the share depends on partner size and volume of leads generated. Adams presents the service as an alternative to Google AdSense, used by countless publishers in the advertising network to collect additional ad dollars.

Forbes.com chose another Google alternative when it signed an exclusive agreement in February with Quigo to run its contextual text ads on the site.

Microsoft is also joining the lead gen game, having recently introduced a widget-style ad format for its health search portal. The goal is to drive sales leads for health advertisers including Diet.com, eHealthInsurance.com and Medifast.

“Publishers that have lots of content and page views are trying to find ways to generate additional dollars that are typically being allocated to search engine marketing,” said Adams. “Lead generation is enabling that because the budgets are effectively the same ones advertisers are using for search to largely do lead generation, so alternative forms of lead generation are hitting that same bucket.”

Lead quality is of growing importance to marketers using lead gen services; to ensure consumer interest, Matchpoint vets leads it collects by sending them an e-mail confirmation they must respond to before the leads are put up for auction. If consumers agree to be matched to one of up to five highest-bidding advertisers, those advertisers can contact the consumer via e-mail twice in a 30-day period through Matchpoint’s system. Acting as a proxy, the company never provides personal information about consumers, thus protecting their privacy.

The Federal Trade Commission has been investigating the lead gen sector as a whole, and is focusing on the practice of giving consumers incentives like free Apple iPods to provide personal information to lead generation services.

An overarching concern about lead generation, however, is personal data privacy. The Interactive Advertising Bureau Lead Generation Committee has begun tackling the issue by creating data transfer best practices the group proposes companies adopt by April 2008. The guidelines call for lead gen firms to secure consumer data when sold or passed from one firm to another through encryption and standard, secure technologies.

Adams said Matchpoint does not sell leads. “That’s how we avoid a lot of the potential pitfalls we’ve seen in the lead gen marketplace,” he continued.

Pitfalls remain, however. The fact is other lead generation services can employ Matchpoint’s system to drive traffic to their own business-finding sites, sending the user down a lead gen rabbit hole. For instance, a search for “cleaners” in White Plains, NY resulted in a singular advertiser, The Done Right directory of local home improvement services. Not only does the site require an additional search by the user, its database doesn’t include White Plains.

Matchpoint is among many seeking to cash in on the growing online local ad market, and Adams believes its site could supplant Google or yellow pages searches as a preferred method of finding businesses like pest control services, fitness centers or lasik eye surgeons. The company just launched a self-service system designed for local businesses.

“We are absolutely going after the long tail of advertisers… very much like you see in the search advertising model,” said Adams.

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