SmartMoney.com, Salon Seek to Weather Ad Downturn

Major Web publishers are continuing their efforts to ride out the harsh advertising market, with SmartMoney.com unveiling a paid offering, and Salon.com introducing new ad types.

Stung by the continued sluggishness in online advertising, both media firms are pushing the envelope with regard to common procedure on the Web.

For instance, SmartMoney.com — a joint venture between Dow Jones & Co. and Hearst Communications — is aiming to debut the new SmartMoney Select service next month, which makes some original content and new investment tools available only to subscribers. Monthly fees range from $4.95 for delayed market information, to $9.95 for real-time quotes. (The site is offering discounts to users who sign up for an annual subscription.)

Like the few other content sites that offer subscription services, the pitch to users is that SmartMoney Select offers special, “top-tier” features not accessible to the regular, non-paying visitor — features that the hard-core stock market junkie, in this case, ostensibly can’t live without.

“As anyone with a Web browser knows, there is now and probably will always be a lot of financial information on the Internet available for free,” said the site’s editor and chief technical officer, Marc Frons, in a letter Wednesday announcing the service. “But quality, unbiased information and cutting-edge financial tools are much more difficult to come by, not to mention more expensive to produce.”

San Francisco-based Salon is another site testing the subscription-only service, which it rolled out in March. But, taking a different approach than SmartMoney, Salon has been promoting its offering based on the fact that subscribers don’t see advertising on the site.

However, as a follow-up to that service, Salon continues its efforts to monetize traffic, unveiling a new ad offering that has the secondary consequence of encouraging visitors to pay for its ads-free subscription service.

Earlier this week, the company rolled out full-screen interstitials for Sprint PCS. The ads appear the first time a user clicks on any content, are on-screen for five seconds before forwarding users to the content, and are frequency capped at one per day.

Already, Salon.com spokesman Patrick Hurley said the firm is receiving feedback from users about the new ads. Surprisingly, some of that response is even positive, he said — from visitors that are thankful that the ads aren’t more intrusive. Of course, there were the expected complaints from users unhappy with the change.

“There … was a smattering of responses from people who didn’t want any advertising,” Hurley said. “But if they don’t want advertising, they can sign up for our premium, subscription-based service.”

The efforts come amid continuing retrenchment in ad spending — the outlook for which, many believe, has only been worsened by the recent terrorist attacks and subsequent market slide.

For some publishers, subscription services are getting a second look after having been dismissed for the simple reason that people have never paid for Web content before — save for cases like the Wall Street Journal’s interactive edition and pornography — and would be thus unwilling to do so en masse in the future.

For instance, MP3.com and AudioGalaxy.com recently took the wraps off a subscription-based service. Viacom’s CBS Television unit required a fee for 24-hour access to the Webcams for its “Big Brother” show, and Web portal Yahoo is also continuing to offer fee-based areas. Primedia’s About.com, similarly, is pledging to boost its own subscription-only efforts.

Although Salon doesn’t disclose subscriber figures for its individual properties, which also include its two paid-access communities, TableTalk and The WELL, Hurley said the company has about 20,000 monthly subscriptions — the “vast majority” of which belong to Salon Premium.

But for Salon and others experimenting with subscriptions, asking users to pay for content is still very much uncharted territory, and has yet to be proven a definitive success. Still, the site maintains that its new advertising offering doesn’t indicate a failure with its new subscription service, or a lack of confidence in the model.

“We get revenue from subscriptions and revenues from advertising,” Hurley said. “We’re not deploying new units to drive people to the premium offering; they’re independent of each other. Hopefully the premium offering is substantial enough that people will want to subscribe to it, and if they don’t, that’s fine as well — they pay through exposure to advertising.”

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