Publishers Exploring New Options to Appease Advertisers

As online media revenues continue to decline, Web publishers are looking to ways to boost their appeal to advertisers. And in many cases, that means introducing flashy new ad types and sizes.

Of course, this goes against the “standardization” movement popularized by groups like the Internet Advertising Bureau in recent years.

But increasingly, advertisers’ need to break through the clutter and publishers’ need to attract advertisers, outweigh the disadvantages associated with not following industry-wide standardization — at least in the minds of the publishers.

Late last month, consumer technology site CNET rolled out a new Flash-based ad size on pages of its News.com and ZDNet News units.

That ad type, called “Messaging Plus,” is a 300-by-300 pixel box about an inch below the headline right in the column in which text appears; article text flows around the ad space, similarly to newspapers. The new format is a significant break from the 468-by-60 pixel banner that’s become a standard on the Web.

CNET also said that it would begin selling a 160-by-600 pixel “skyscraper” banner that appears flush right or left, and a wider-than-usual 728-by-90 pixel banner that spans the entire width of a page. Only one ad will appear on each page, and all ads are served using Engage’s AdManager outsourced ad serving system.

In addition to featuring rich media creative, the ads will also let users stay on CNET’s site. Clicking on the ad’s buttons, tabs or links loads new content in the ad space only.

CNET’s not alone in tweaking its Web model to suit advertisers: the New York Times’s interactive unit also said it would also begin using online ads along the same specifications as CNET.

“Our profitability goal mandates that we seek every new revenue opportunity,” said Martin Nisenholtz, the chief executive of New York Times Digital, in a statement. “In order to make online marketing viable, advertisers need more effective positions. We all need to leverage the interactive nature of the Web better.”

That new ad format, said a NYTD spokesperson, is part of a larger effort for the company to begin using other, larger-than-banner ad sizes in the second half of 2001. The new ads will also be accompanied by a site redesign.

Internet.com, the corporate parent of internetnews.com, also said it’s planning to roll out 360-by-300 pixel Flash ads on many of its sites, beginning with internetnews.com, AdResource.com, CyberAtlas.com, and InternetStockReport.com. Those ads would appear flush-right on a page, in addition to banners at the top of a page.

“This is certainly part of a trend for clients to look for and receive larger portions of screen real estate,” said internet.com vice president and general manager Chris Elwell. “Looking back to the 468-by-60 pixel banners, publishers were giving clients a 12th or a 16th of screen real estate. Compared to other media, that kind of ratio of advertising to editorial doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

CNET public relations manager Genevieve Cowger said advertisers — which include Sun Microsystems, Oracle and Morgan Stanley Dean Witter — were pleased at the new ads.

“So far, everything we’ve done has had a really positive reception,” she said. “We did an initial eye tracking … and saw that users were three times more likely to click on the ads. As far as branding goes, users definitely remember the brand.”

E-mail publications, too, are hunting for new ways to monetize their inventory. Magazine publisher Rising Tide Studios last week revealed that it would begin requiring subscribers of its daily email newsletters to accept weekly email ads from advertisers. According to a statement from the company, if users did not wish to receive the email ads, they would have to unsubscribe from the newsletter altogether — although they could still read the stories online.

New York Times Digital also said some of its properties, including The Boston Globe‘s site Boston.com, GolfDigest.com and community site Abuzz, are pursuing various ways to expand email marketing.

A desire for increased revenue is a major factor in online publishers’ decisions to change ad policy or flirt with unconventional banner types — especially since many of them are feeling the effects of an across-the-board advertising slowdown, compounded by a severe drop-off in dot-com ad spending and lingering questions about the efficacy of banner ads.

CNET says it has set a rate card CPM price of about $155 for the new ads, but often sees discounted CPMs in the $75 range. Even after discounts, those numbers are well above the amounts that even Web’s biggest brands seem able to command: based on recent statistics from Jupiter Media Metrix’s AdRelevance unit, portals like Yahoo and MSN are seeing post-discount CPM rates between $15 and $28 on their standard banner ads. At least part of that difference, though, can be attributed to the fact that CNET’s audience is more targeted.

Elwell said internet.com has not yet published rate card information for its new ads.

Despite potentially heightened CPMs, questions remain about how users will respond to the new ads: whether they will be turned off by a large, animated ads appearing in the middle or alongside articles. Additionally, the greater file size associated with most rich media types — including Flash — mean that it will take longer for users with slower connections to download content.

“Clients will continue to get more screen real estate up until the point where it becomes too intrusive,” he added. “And we don’t know where that point is yet.”

“It’s probably a change that started quite a while ago, starting from the day when everyone agreed that 468-by-60 pixels was a standard,” Elwell said. “And it isn’t likely to end anytime soon.”

But CNET is adamant that its new file type delivers effective messaging, and cited its own consumer studies, in conjunction with EyeTracking.com, that suggests that users spend more time with the new ads, like them better, and were more likely to remember the brand than with conventional ads.

“Both [publishers and advertisers] wanted to do more with online ads,” Cowger said. “The standards were developed four to five years ago … and the Internet keeps evolving, why shouldn’t ads?”

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