If the message is indeed the medium, sometimes it’s hard to understand what the Internet is saying, particularly to marketers and advertisers. While traditional media’s ad models have proven successful for generations, it’s becoming clear that transposing formats developed for a passive TV or radio experience onto the Internet, whose reason d’etre is interactivity, is simply not the best way to reach consumers-particularly kids. For advertisers, the Internet is a paradox of huge untapped potential; although it reaches millions instantly, it’s often hard to know if you’re really reaching the target audience in the way intended.
‘IF you can really define [the reach of a web ad], then you are doing a real targeted buy and chances are it’s much less expensive than a print buy in a major magazine or a broadcast buy on television,’ says Glen Ross, president of Artisan Family Home Entertainment. ‘But it’s very slipshod right now-you don’t know who you’re going to get or when you’re going to get them.’
Because of the current soft on-line advertising market, Matt Turner, VP of advertising sales and business development for Fox Kids and Fox Family, says that even though ‘the web makes sense for everybody on a promotional level, companies are less likely to put aside 5% to 10% of their overall ad budgets for the Internet because it’s not totally proven. You can’t say it drives sales like TV does. Hopefully that day will come soon, but until it does, we’re trying to be as creative as we possibly can.’
Meanwhile independent sites are being crushed by the lack of advertising revenue. ‘If you look at the whole Internet landscape, the independents are going out of business like crazy,’ says Turner, who points to Zeeks.com as another recent casualty. ‘The only reason why there are any indies still around is because they are owned by bigger companies with deep pockets. There’s no way they can keep it running unless they have something other than ad revenue.’
Although the Internet has not become the advertising promised-land independents originally hoped it would be, Jessica Halem, marketing manager of Freezone.com, believes indies can still be profitable via advertising, but only by setting modest goals. ‘Figure out what you have to offer and do that,’ she says. And in terms of why indie sites can be of vital importance to marketers, Halem notes: ‘I might not have 18 million unique visitors, but I guarantee you the 500,000 to one million kids who come here every month are invested in the site because we’ve taken the time to actually cultivate that audience instead of just throwing a net out.’
Although there’s no clear consensus on what marketing format works best, most believe the inherently interactive nature of the Internet is best utilized with an integrated approach. Here are some examples of web ad formats currently being used:
Stand-alone product sites
These sites work best for branded products that kids already have an interaction with, such as video games. Says Dan Owsen, on-line manager for Pokémon.com, ‘The purpose of the site is to extend the brand and get people excited about Pokémon, and also to provide a place for official news about products and games-related announcements.’
However, most stand-alone product sites, such as Cheerios.com, end up being little more than cyber billboards. Fox Kids’ Matt Turner says the really savvy advertisers readily acknowledge you don’t harvest loyal repeat visitors by using on-pack promos to send kids to your own site. ‘Maybe they’ll go there once because they think they’re going to win something they see on the back of the box.’
Freezone.com’s Halem suggests that community sites that already have regular kid traffic are a better bet. She cites the experience the Edy’s ice cream site had when it sponsored a chat with soccer star Mia Hamm. ‘The kids get to meet Mia Hamm, and the flipside for Edy’s is thousands of kids who are going to sign up on your mailing list.’ And from a branding point of view, the connection is really key. ‘Freezone is cool, Mia Hamm is cool, so Edy’s must be cool.’
This is why marketers are increasingly developing strategic partnerships for their product sites. ‘At Poptarts.com, there’s an active campaign that includes Foxkids.com, Nick.com, Cartoonnetwork.com and Freezone,’ Turner says. ‘It’s a treasure hunt sweepstakes that sends kids to each one of these vendor sites; they play a game there and then go back to Poptarts.com to finish the game and win. It’s a really creative viral marketing campaign that spreads traffic all over the place and creates excitement for kids. The game itself has already generated more traffic than any of our advertiser-branded games.’
Streaming video/audio ads
Although streaming audio usually few download issues, streaming video can be problematic because of the potential for lengthy download times. ‘We’ve streamed commercials for a couple of advertisers, and it takes a standard modem 10 minutes to load them,’ says Fox Kids’ Turner.
Nickelodeon Online’s VP of ad sales marketing Sharon Cohen says download times are not much of a deterrent to her clients. ‘We provide advertisers with the specifications we use throughout the site. So if kids are already enjoying the site and they have all the plug-ins, then they should be able to interact with [our streaming ads] as well. They’re actually very good at employing streaming media.’
Cohen points to the success of Nick.com’s ‘adisodes,’ located in the Weblab area of the site. ‘It’s not a traditional commercial, but rather it’s a web cartoon or some other piece of content that showcases an advertiser’s brand to our audience. There is also an ad banner on that page so kids can click through to the advertiser’s website. Nintendo has done one, Mattel has done one for Diva Starz, and we hope to do more.’
Turner says Fox Kids also creates original cartoon shorts for advertisers. ‘We did this for PlayStation’s Micro Maniacs, and it helped brand the game so kids were more likely to go out and buy it.’
The original advertising format on the Net has fallen out of favor with many advertisers. However, Nick’s Cohen is still bullish on banners. ‘We find that our kids still click, and it’s a great way to generate the most mass, cost-effective reach for your message. By doing a run-of-site buy, you hit kids in all areas of the site. Banner ads are certainly alive and well with us.’
Many of the banners on brand extension sites like Nick.com are the result of vertically-integrated corporate synergy that offers off-line advertisers multimedia ad packages that include space on the company’s kid website. But for other advertisers, Cohen says Nick.com utilizes the ‘menu’ approach, meaning that banners are used in conjunction with one or more other formats, such as streaming audio. Nick.com has integrated the two formats in its radio opportunity. ‘We offer up audio spots within the body of the audio programming so the ad comes up every nth song-the advertiser’s banner and logo appear simultaneously in the spot where the record jacket previously appeared. It’s a great way to incorporate sight, sound and motion,’ she says.
Because kids visit 20 different sites every time they browse the web on average, Internet-savvy marketers quickly realized that the sum of two brands can be greater than the individual sites when it comes to reaching kids. Although Artisan Home Entertainment does not buy advertising time on the web, Ross says it has proven an important promotional tool that Artisan has employed primarily through cross-promotions with partners. From November 2000 through January 2001, Blue Mountain did a series of on-line greeting cards based on The Tangerine Bear, while Christmas-hinged site Claus.com featured Tangerine Bear trailers, games and printable certificates during the same time period. Both web partners featured links back to Artisan’s site prominently.
Similarly, Foxkids.com and Jel-Sert are teaming up this month for a Digimon pinball tourney. The venture will feature on-pack promotions for Foxkids.com, including a decoder that allows kids playing the game on the website to access higher levels of the game, which in turn will be sponsored by Jel-sert on the site.
Branded activities on other kids websites
Sometimes, advertisers are happy to simply be associated with a winning kids brand, such as the branded Sports Illustrated games featured on Cartoonnetwork.com. Similarly, Funschool.com recently debuted two customized games for ABC’s Disney kids lineup, adding characters from two new properties-Disney’s Lloyd in Space and Disney’s House of Mouse-last month. The Fox Kids web unit also did a series of virtual postcards to tout Dr Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. ‘The great thing about this initiative is that whenever a kid sent a postcard, the branding reached two kids for the price of one,’ says Turner.
Stealth or experiential sites
While this web tactic has been extremely successful at building buzz for event launches among adult consumers (à la Blair Witch), so-called stealth sites, with no identifiable brand association, are a trickier proposition for kids, which is probably why there are not many examples currently on the web.
Freezone.com’s Halem says forcefully, ‘I feel really strongly that if you are marketing to kids, you have to be clear about it. Kids know the difference between advertising and editorial content. They’ll sniff you out in a second.’
However, Nintendo’s publicity director Beth Llewelyn says the strategy worked for a tween-targeted marketing initiative for the Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask video game that was released October 26, 2000, with the stealth site initiated a month prior to the release. ‘We experimented with the Majora’s Mask because the story line has this moon crashing down, and the player has three days to save the world. We launched a couple of websites that talked about the end of the world without mentioning Nintendo, but it eventually tied back to the game and then linked up to the official game site.’
The response to the site was extremely positive, and Nintendo execs feel it helped spur the sales of 1.3 million games to date. ‘There’s so much out there,’ Llewelyn adds, ‘it’s just a way to engage and capture attention and bring tweens in to fill them in on the story.’
The Internet offers marketers a unique opportunity to gather limited direct response information from kids. Fox Kids’ Turner says, ‘Usually, this is part of a bigger deal. If we’re running a simple giveaway or advertiser-branded game on the site, we always try to suggest a data-mining addition because advertisers find it very valuable to collect information from kids about their consuming habits and how they feel about their product.’ The most recent example was a Burger King on-line game; before kids played the game, they were asked questions such as ‘How do you choose your favorite restaurant-is it the food or the toy?’ At the end of the game, kids could print out a coupon for a free frozen coke. ‘It’s cool because you can create an integrated promotion where you’re combining data-mining, branding throughout the game, and then a drive-in store at the end,’ says Turner. It should be noted that all such information-gathering must comply with The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which requires verifiable parental consent to be obtained prior to collecting, using or disclosing personal info from a child.
Sponsoring web events on branded sites offers advertisers another opportunity to market their product via games, contests or activities that are virtually guaranteed to drive traffic. In the planning stages now, Foxkids.com will be running a second virtual pinball tournament in which games are branded with the advertisers’ characters, just as real arcade pinball machines are often branded with movie characters. In this case, the pinball machines will sport either logos or characters of the advertisers’ brand. Foxkids.com is currently discussing the project with a number of potential partners.
Nick.com’s Cohen also stresses the advantages of sponsorships, whether it be for specific games or other areas on the site. ‘These are ways for our advertisers to associate with premium content on our site. Ralph Lauren, Kraft, Mattel-all of our major advertisers have done that. Sponsorships are a great way for brands to elevate themselves in the minds of kids because they are associating themselves with something the kids are interested in.’
Freezone’s Halem says the site’s sponsored chat events have proven to be a good revenue model. One recent example had a game developer from Nintendo, which sponsored the event, chatting to kids about what her job was like, the kind of education and training it took, and what kinds of games she developed. ‘It furthered their brand and promoted their product, while giving kids real information and insight. We think that’s the best way to connect to kids.’
Publisher HarperCollins and writer R.L. Stine also commissioned Freezone.com to host a monthly chat event, The Nightmare Room, as a promotion for the series of books by the same name. ‘We set up a monthly chat so the author and kids can talk about the new book. We do all the registration, we advertise it on our site and drive traffic to it, and then kids get to have this non-stop marketing experience.’
Developing a campaign integrating on-line and off-line strategies-or convergence opportunities-appears to be the most effective way to reach kids. The method has developed light years past the first on-pack ‘Visit our website’ efforts into true convergent opportunities, such as Nick.com’s BubbleCast, a real-time on-line quiz show about a Rugrats episode airing simultaneously on TV. (See ‘How Nick got its groove back,’ page 45 for more details.)
Cohen says the boon for advertisers is that ‘on-air they would have on-set billboard ads, and on-line they would sponsor the BubbleCast page. There’s an opportunity during the commercials on-air for them to have messaging within the actual BubbleCast tuner,’ meaning advertisers would be able to stream marketing content on-line via the BubbleCast tool. ‘It’s a really great way to send kids back and forth between mediums, as well as to reinforce the sponsorship.’
Jim Samples, GM of Cartoon Network Online, agrees the integrated approach is the way to go, which is why Cartoonnetwork.com’s ad sales group is the same as the one for the network. ‘We want to put together packages that include on-air and on-line elements so that advertisers’ messages reach viewers in multiple venues.’
That strategy fueled Cartoonnetwork.com’s successful Toonami on-air/on-line promotion for new show The Intruder in September 2000, which was sponsored by Nintendo. To play the Intruder web game, kids needed the special code revealed during broadcast episodes. ‘We wanted to accomplish several things. One, we wanted to prove to ourselves and the advertiser that we could bounce eyeballs back and forth between the web and the TV; and two, that one experience wouldn’t cannibalize the other.’ The on-air eyeball tally was definitely increased by the promotion; the five-minute Intruder debut ep netted a 3.2 rating with kids six to 17. But the on-line results were enormously positive. The Intruder main page received 3.5 million page views that week, upping Cartoonnetwork.com’s weekly page views by 60%, and its unique users by 75%.
In the end, the biggest value of any of these formats is the long-term return marketers will get on their investment. Freezone.com’s Halem believes ‘just putting your name on a banner ad flashing in front of a kid isn’t the same as getting a kid invested in your product. If I’m trying to reach kids, the value is long-term as opposed to immediate sales. Am I going to be able to promise that 10% of the kids who log-on are going to go buy product? There’s no way I can promise you that. But building a brand awareness-I can guarantee you these kids talk about nothing but brands.’