Ready To Get Weird, Advertisers?

2007 may be the year they fully embrace the Net

To use a perilous form of columnist shorthand, in media terms 2005 was the year of MySpace, and 2006 was the year of YouTube.

Or maybe 2006 was the year of virtual-world site Second Life, even if its fanatically devoted audience remains small relative to the hype; Advertising Age recently commented that it will start writing about marketers that aren't establishing presences there. I should probably apologize for bringing up these usual suspects again. But of the many factors that will decide how the ad pie is split up in '07, perhaps the biggest is how quickly these next-generation Web platforms become mainstream ad vehicles and score sizable portions of marketing budgets. (In YouTube's case, it also needs corporate parent Google (GOOG ) to, uh, invent an ad model. That alone could boost the Web's share of advertising.) These places are already accepted as legitimate media, at least judging from what top marketing executives are saying. Then again, The Ed Sullivan Show once "accepted" Elvis as legit and then famously showed him only from the waist up. Can '07 be the year mainstream marketers become comfortable enough to make mainstream-sized bets on these platforms' full-Monty ways? Yes, if three things happen.

ONE: BIG MARKETERS HAVE TO RELAX about getting weird. Video ads that get the biggest online bang are those that elicit a simple three-word reaction: "What the hell?" I do not posit this approach as the be-all and end-all of Web creativity. But I now have heard of Blendtec's Total Blender and watched it in action thanks to its deadpan "Will It Blend?" series of short online videos, which pit the blender against objects such as bottles of beer or 40 pens. (Needless to say, these videos win my highest recommendation.) One pioneer in this space warns of its limits. "As this market grows up, the quote-edginess-unquote of the content will get toned down," says Matt Smith, co-founder of London-based Viral Factory, which produces faux-documentary Web video shorts with viral aspirations. Right now, though, bizarre works, and Smith points out that there is a different bar set for Web video: "We are not competing with other commercials. We compete with all the other [online] content out there."

TWO: MARKETERS MUST BE PUT AT EASE in places where consumers run a little more free than they do in, say, a car showroom. Volvo has sponsored a kind of best-of feature called "What's Your Story?" on Microsoft's (MSFT )x MSN Spaces blog network since 2005. It lets the automaker run ad messages around spotlighted blog entries--culled from Space's gazillion blog pages by Microsoft editors who ensure Volvo isn't near anything weird. This has fostered a long-term relationship between the companies. It also points to the tension between unedited environments and marketers' concerns about being there. This tension could be eased with better technology to spot content too hot for advertisers. That, and an understanding on marketers' parts, says Nielsen BuzzMetrics CEO Jonathan Carson, that "media placement by algorithm is going to result in some margin of error."

THREE: MORE AND BETTER TARGETING. A marketer's fantasy about a site like MySpace isn't reaching its massive audience but identifying and targeting a few thousand highly influential or relevant members. This is not as easy as it sounds. "Consumer-generated media happens much faster than traditional media," says Carson, and in places where last month's stars can fall quickly out of fashion. There are targeting tools out there, but as of yet they're "in their infancy," explains Volvo national ad manager Linda Gangeri. She also says many more Volvo dollars would flow to these sites if concerns about safety and targeting were allayed. And so, for the new Net, an old song about online is reprising: The growth spurt may have happened, but the real rewards will come when these sites have grown up.

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By Jon Fine

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