Snowball.com to Reduce House Ads, Make Inventory “Less Predictable”

Is less ad inventory more? That’s the question that a number of Web publishers are hoping to answer in the affirmative, with Snowball.com being the latest to reorganize its sites to cut down on “ad clutter.”

Snowball, which runs youth-oriented sites including chickclick.com and ign.com, offers email marketing, contextual e-commerce, and custom publishing products to advertisers in addition to CPM-based advertising.

But now, as online ad revenues continue to remain soft — and with fears of reductions in Web media spending looming — Snowball.com is taking some major steps to spark advertisers’ interest in buying space on its sites.

Most importantly, the Brisbane, Calif.-based company said that it would drastically reduce ad inventory and take a number of other initiatives to reduce ad space and command premium CPMs from advertisers.

For one, the company will be serving almost no house ads, according to its president, Rick Boyce. Instead, it will roll out larger ad sizes — similar to publishers including CNET, who are offering products that include only one, large-size advertising position per page.

New ad sizes will include large 160×600 pixel “tower” ads, 300×250 rectangles, and 250×250 pop-up ad format — ad sizes recommended by the Internet Advertising Bureau earlier this month. In addition to its standard pop-up, which can appear behind or in front of a user’s Web browser window, a new DHTML-based pop-up variant will create a five-second exposure on a loading Web page.

Snowball’s large-size ad format will also incorporate rich media — in a strategy similar to that of other publishers — which the company hopes encourages user involvement with the ads.

The company will also offer a full-screen, rich media interstitial that would appear no more often than once every ten minutes.

“Large ads are a key part of the new medium,” Boyce said. “They’re more effective in communicating a message … they’re more intrusive — to break through — and they can have a positive effect on branding and clickthroughs.

“Larger ad units are more impactful in and of themselves, but we also believe that if we reduce the amount of clutter … it will benefit advertisers more, and have an incremental effect on advertising,” Boyce said. “We believe that the Web is too cluttered — there are too many ads on pages. It’s important to serve [consumers] fewer ads.”

To that end, the publisher’s inventory on Web pages also will be placed “less predictably” than is usual, it said. Placing ads in spaces other than above-copy 468×60 banners or flush-right “tower” ads should help create a more interesting user experience, Boyce said — ideally, keeping readers noticing (and clicking) ads.

“We believe that users get trained to look for ads,” Boyce said. “We believe that if we can take away that predictability, it will also add to the impact and value that advertisers expect. The user experience will be one in which they will see different types of ads in pretty much every page they load.”

This company’s plan also means that it will serves pages without any ads at all. But that’s not a problem, Snowball said, because it sees fewer, larger interactive ads coupled with less predictability creating “greater media value and more creative impact” — and ideally, more advertiser revenue.

“A page without any ad units on it will load quicker, and users will really love it. And the next time an ad appears, they will notice it,” Boyce said. “It will create an unpredictable experience that can create more impactful advertising.”

However, the move could spurn increased tensions with Snowball.com affiliates, who share CPM revenue for hosting Snowball.com-served ads. As house ads are reduced in number, affiliates will receive less revenue — since they don’t get paid for pages that don’t contain ads.

Nevertheless, that’s one of the prices Snowball is willing to pay.

“The goal is to deliver maximum value to customers,” Boyce said. “The reason we’re proposing some of these changes is to add as much value as possible to our advertising customers. That’s what it’s all about.”

“The industry is kind of having a bit of a confidence crisis now … with the investor community, advertisers and agencies,” he added. “What the larger units are doing is they’re allowing us to counter that confidence crisis and really propose to advertisers marketing solutions that they can really believe in. The banner we’ve known for the past couple years has really fallen out of favor. The marketplace is looking for more from Web publishers.”

The move comes as Snowball is dealing with a number of financial woes brought on by flagging ad revenue, more so than many other major online publishers. Earlier this month, the company’s shareholders approved a 1:3 reverse stock split, designed to boost the company’s trading price by taking shares off the market. However, the action failed to lift the stock price above the $1 mark for more than two days.

In January, the company announced a 20 percent workforce reduction (or about 60 employees) in an effort to cut costs.

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