Behind Those Web Mergers

Marketers want smarter, targeted online ads. That's driving deals

Ford's recent marching order for its media buys sounded more like a personals ad than a marketing campaign: Find us women online age 25 to 54 who are independent and business-minded. The prize for delivering this special group of potential buyers? Ford Motor Co. (F ) would pay big bucks to run more than 200 million ads for its Lincoln Mercury line over three weeks on thousands of Web sites. So Specific Media Inc., an online ad-targeting network, dove into its massive data troves, which contain anonymous Web-browsing profiles of 95% of the U.S. online population.

Starting Apr. 1, anyone whose Web profile made them appear female and interested in business--such as those who had visited both and served a Lincoln Mercury ad when she surfed to a Specific Media network site, such as Merriam-Webster. Specific Media sold ad space to Ford for a good deal more than Specific paid for it--in one case, 62% more. And Ford got a higher number of people requesting dealer locations and price quotes than if it had simply blanketed random Web sites with ads. Says Larry Carney, digital group director for WPP Group (WPPGY )-owned Team Detroit, which hired Specific Media: "You want to know that every dollar you're spending has a return on investment."

Indeed. And that demand for better returns on ad spending is helping to drive a new spate of Internet mergers and acquisitions. They're all aimed at least in part at amassing better online data to help divine consumer interests and intentions, enabling Web sites to serve up more relevant ads--and charge more for them. In a deal that shook both Madison Avenue and Silicon Valley, search giant Google Inc. (GOOG ) said in early April that it will spend $3.1 billion to buy DoubleClick Inc., one of the largest collectors of demographic consumer data on the Web. A few weeks later, Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO ) paid $680 million for the remaining 80% it didn't already own of Right Media Inc.

On May 4 the possibility of a far larger, multibillion-dollar merger, Microsoft Corp. (MSFT ) and Yahoo, was the talk of Wall Street until it turned out that discussions involving a purchase of Yahoo had ended months ago. Nonetheless, some people think data could be a prime motive behind any partnership that may yet emerge: Microsoft's valuable demographic data provided by users of its Hotmail, MSN, and other services combined with data from Yahoo's array of personalized services could offer a credible challenge in ad targeting to Google's highly relevant search ads.

In other words, the rest of online advertising, from banner ads to video spots to pop-up ads, is getting Googlified. Google made the business of selling ads against search results a runaway success--in the process making display ads less attractive to advertisers. Not only can advertisers target just the right customers based on search terms they type in, no guessing required, but those advertisers also can track exactly how many people click on the ad and whether they bought something as a result.


Now marketers are spoiled. And as big-brand advertisers move online in greater force, they're demanding the ability to apply the same kind of targeting and measurability they get from paid search to all the other ads they run. "Everybody's got the mindset that everything should be measurable," says Erik Qualman, head of North America marketing for travel site Travelzoo Inc. (TZOO ) One reason: While targeted ads online may cost about twice as much as untargeted ads, they can produce twice the return on investment. As a result, says David R. Verklin, chief executive of Carat Americas, the agency that buys online ads for the likes of Pfizer Inc. (PFE ), "data and data analytics are the next big battleground in marketing."

And on the Internet. Ad networks such as Specific Media, Blue Lithium, and 24/7 Real Media (TFSM ) appear to be on the short list for acquisition by major media and tech companies. In fact, analysts believe 24/7 Real Media (TFSM ) already has been courted by Microsoft and WPP.

By Robert D. Hof and Catherine Holahan, with Burt Helm in New York

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