Home Page Madness

By all accounts, interactive marketing has scaled and is anticipated to continue its growth into the foreseeable future. Nowhere is this growth more apparent than the increased demand for the Web’s “primetime” placements, namely the home pages of the leading three properties: AOL, MSN, and Yahoo

Home-page placements have taken on a business dynamic of their own. They’re typically controlled by a separate home-page team and are priced very differently from the portals’ other interactive marketing elements. What makes these units so appealing, and what do we anticipate for the home page market for the next year?

Let’s face it: advertising is an ego-driven business. True, we all play well above the fracas in a world full of ROI (define), efficient leads, and driving sales. There isn’t a CMO out there who wouldn’t like to send an internal (or external) memo to direct people to “watch MSN’s home page” on a specified date. Large, expensive placements that reach mass audiences are what drives the ego side of the business (and what drives Super Bowl advertising madness each year).

Home-page placements also speak to an online advertising weakness. Despite marketers spending millions of dollars on placements, they “never see their ads.” This is partially due to tremendous fractionalization in the online space and the typically low share of voice any one advertiser has on a large property. In network TV, advertisers can cozy up next to the tube, armed with a list of their commercial placements, including time of break and pod position. Print buyers can direct advertisers to a specific page where marketers can see the fruit of their labors. Home-page placements are our equivalent of such specificity. Marketers love that.

In addition to the feel-good element, home-page placements typically make a lot of sense from an efficiency and effectiveness standpoint. The ability to deliver mass audiences over a short period is a major issue facing traditional mass media. Depending on the portal, a home-page placement could yield 40-110 million ad impressions during a 24-hour period. Those are Super Bowl-like numbers for a fraction of the cost.

Creative opportunities on the portal home pages are also fantastic. Yahoo has no fewer than 12 iterations of what its home-page ads can entail, including online games that use the home page as game real estate and drives significant time spent with the brand. AOL and MSN both offer rich media placements, including dynamic floating elements and video delivery on their home pages for an immersive, engaging ad experience. This combination of mass audiences and rich immersive advertising makes these units highly seductive for all parts of the ecosystem: media planners, creative directors, marketing managers, and the like.

So where’s the problem? Availability. There are really only four sites that get the type of daily traffic we’re talking about and Google doesn’t sell advertising on its home page (yet). We’re left with just AOL, MSN, and Yahoo Do the math: multiply the number of sites by the number of days in a year. There are just over 1,000 home page ad opportunities. Factor in the sometimes substantial decline in impressions during the weekend and focus exclusively on weekday placements, and we’re down to fewer than 800 opportunities all marketers must compete for.

This translates into being locked out of opportunities, as well as having to reserve inventory several months in advance. If you want a placement in the competitive fourth quarter, you may need to reserve placements up to a year in advance. This is unheard of in the online space!

Demand doesn’t look to be waning anytime in the near future. Yet, supply could get a little better in 2006, thanks to the relaunch of AOL.com. Previously, AOL sold its “Welcome Screen” (for the AOL service) to marketers but typically limited the number of days offered and priced it much higher on a CPM (define) basis than Yahoo and MSN. This was partially because AOL was straddling the line between being a paid service and an ad-supported one, and it didn’t want to irritate the subscriber base. Now that AOL.com has relaunched and is being promoted heavily, there could be a new home page placement that makes sense to buy. Stay tuned.

Until next time, happy home-page hunting!

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