The Streams of 2003

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And Now a Word from Our Sponsor
Forget for a moment next-generation convergence media, let alone the latest and greatest in intrusive online advertising. In 2002, ads took beyond-the-banner thinking to the extreme with everything from layered, oversized panels that acted as mini Web sites within a publisher's page, to flashy animations that crawled, rolled, bounced, and even barked across home pages. Still, a quieter alternative to pop-ups and roll-overs was taking hold at many sites that discovered a format as old as radio soap operas and NASCAR racing. Being a major underwriter of content that people really enjoy is one of the most effective branding vehicles available, a principle that is often forgotten in an age when carpet-bombing the consumer seems the easiest thing to do to sell product.

Sponsorships are the fastest growing category of online advertising, already accounting for up to 26% of media buying, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau. Sponsorships are also among the most creative ad executions online. For instance, AgricultureOnline (www.agriculture. com), is where farmers and other agri-businessmen not only check hog futures and fertilizer components, but also have a little fun at the wildly popular SMART Farmer game, which tests the user's knowledge of the industry (and of the sponsor's products). Our favorite, however, is the Combine Cam, which broadcasts in real time the view from the cab of the sponsor's farm vehicle as it works the land. Visitors see how the machinery performs and explore its feature set. This is the sort of highly integrated approach to sponsorship design that is unique to the Web. The site tells us that this category is far and away the fastest growing area of their ad sales, and for good reason. Sponsorships are especially lucrative for B2B publishers because they encourage a deeper involvement with a product, exactly the kind of interaction necessary in making those larger, longer-term business-related purchases.

On the consumer publishing side, sponsorships not only attract traditional ad buyers, but also garner larger shares of their marketing budgets. When Bridgestone/ Firestone was looking to rehabilitate its reputation after its involvement in the Ford Explorer tire scandal, it dedicated fully half of its online spending to sponsorships, generally underwriting auto safety content around the Web.

Derek Oien, president of the music and media group VNU Net sees advertisers at his MP3.com and RollingStone.com sites becoming much more interested in associating their brands closely with content that is valuable to their target audience. And so, clients such as Skechers, Jim Beam, and others work with his developers to create sponsored content (contests, games, etc.) that keeps the user engaged. The lesson for advertisers is obvious: You don't need to hit visitors over the head with aggressive ads if they are staying on a page that bears your logo, for five or ten minutes at a time. For publishers, the lesson is beginning to get through that sites need to be proactive and highly creative in developing better ways to let advertisers get close to their audiences.

In fact, all three of these revenue-generating trends suggest the same need for another wave of creative approaches on the Web. Innovation in design and functionality characterized the first years of online content. Now is the time for harder thinking about how Web content can make itself indispensable and valuable enough so that both end-users and advertisers start to pay up.

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