Sprint’s WSJ Free-Access Sponsorship a Rare Offering

Sprint’s sponsorship of today’s free Wall Street Journal Online access makes the advertiser part of a long-running but exclusive club. In taking over the WSJ.com homepage and sponsoring free access to otherwise subscription-based content throughout the site, Sprint joins advertisers like Cadillac, Acura, Phillips, and Microsoft’s Bing.

But the sponsorship deal, typically lasting one day, is not for everyone – or anytime. In fact, Sprint is the first advertiser to run a free-access sponsorship in the past four or five months, according to Brian Quinn, VP, GM digital ad sales for The Wall Street Journal Digital Network.

“We really limit how often we do it,” he said, explaining that such sponsorships usually occur with at least six to eight weeks in between them. “It’s a blue chip, premium offering, so we do it sporadically.”

In addition to a large, expandable homepage ad and ownership of that page’s only other ad unit, the deal provides Sprint with additional ads throughout the WSJ.com site, and a homepage takeover on sister site MarketWatch. The ads on WSJ.com simply state that all the site’s content is free today and sponsored by Sprint, and link to the site’s discounted subscription offer. Ads running on WSJ.com’s sister site MarketWatch, however, promote Sprint’s Everywhere Data Plan, and link to a Sprint landing page.

The expandable homepage unit is somewhat of a new component of the sponsorship package, introduced when the Online Publisher’s Association launched a series of new ad units about a year ago.

Quinn said the free-access offering has been available for at least eight years now, and is not something the network pushes to clients. “It comes up in conversations with clients who are maybe having a big product launch or a big announcement and they want to do something unique,” he explained. “It’s something we use very tactically.”

The sponsorships are sold on a flat-fee basis with no impression guarantee, a decidedly different approach from most other online ad buys that often involve some sort of impression guarantee if they’re not sold on a cost-per-action basis.

The publisher not only limits availability of the free-access sponsorships, it limits the number of daily homepage takeovers it offers to 12 per month. “It’s one area where we can create a scarcity,” said Quinn. A common refrain among online advertisers is that the Web offers unlimited inventory, which can dilute its value. WSJ.com sold out of its homepage takeovers in Q4 2009, Quinn said.

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