Mercury Ads Go After Far-flung Audiences

By: Steve Outing

The San Jose Mercury News is not like most regional newspapers. As the paper of record in California’s fabled Silicon Valley, the Knight Ridder paper has established a national and even worldwide reputation. And while it’s obviously not economically feasible to ship newspapers to far-flung stations, the newspaper’s Web site, Mercury Center, has been successful in attracting an audience from around the globe.

Indeed, the paper’s brand group manager for online products, Doug Edwards, says that a majority of Mercury Center’s users reside outside the Bay Area. He considers the site to be in the same space as CNET’s News.com, Wired News, the Industry Standard, and other technology news specialty sites. Of course, the site serves as a non-technology news, information and advertising source for locals, but Mercury Center’s greatest opportunity for expansion comes from serving technology-hungry readers from anywhere on the globe.

The latest strategy to grow its non-local audience is a 3-month online-only Web advertising campaign, which is running through mid-December. Using Darwin Digital, the interactive media group of ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi, Mercury Center is placing rich-media ads on the DoubleClick network, ZDNet, Starwave (ESPN.com and ABCNews.com), Yahoo!, Red Herring, and the Briefing Books section of the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition.

This particular campaign is strictly online, but in the past the site has bought print-online campaigns with print ads in publications like Wired, Forbes ASAP, Red Herring and the Wall Street Journal — promoting Mercury Center as a leading technology news source.

Rich-media buy

Edwards says this campaign uses rich-media ads because it’s important to portray the site as “out in front of the curve,” given the tech-savvy audience demographic sought. The new campaign features two spots. The first features the line “Get Today’s Story Now,” which presents the latest Silicon Valley news headlines plucked live from Mercury Center. Using Darwin Digital’s “iFly” technology, headlines scroll through the banner ad; when a viewer clicks on the headline, they are taken directly to the live story. Another version of the ad features a pop-up menu of current headlines; select the one you want and the banner directs you to the story. iFly, for “information on the fly,” is based on JavaScript and CGI scripting.

The second banner ad series presents a puzzle for the viewer to complete. In the first ad, now running, several scrambled faces are presented along with the text, “Who said, ‘We could double in size but that’s it’?” Among the scrambled faces, which change as the viewer clicks on a series of arrow buttons, are Bill Gates, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, and Yahoo!’s Jerry Yang. Clicking on the site leads to Mercury Center’s home page. The interactive puzzle ads use Enliven, a Java-based technology from Narrative Communications.

Use of rich-media ads remains controversial, and it’s estimated that perhaps half of Web sites accept them. Edwards says the campaign was a bit slow in getting implemented because most of the sites that are part of the campaign took some time to test the interactive ads to make sure they wouldn’t crash users’ browsers or hang up their PCs. Mercury Center now is beginning to accept rich-media ads as well, though it too requires testing before it will run them.

Not all Web users have the latest browsers on the PCs, of course, so the campaign also features more routine animated GIF banners that are served if the site visitor is using an older browser.

(Yet even with the latest technology in a consumer’s hands, rich-media ads can be troublesome. I run a PC with Windows98 and the latest version of Internet Explorer, and I have McAffee’s Webscan software installed, which is a virus application that scans Web content and downloaded files. When I went to view the Mercury Center Enliven ad, it activated the Webscan warning and I was able to view the ad only by disabling Webscan.)

Still, rich media is a worthwhile advertising medium, Edwards believes, due to the increased clickthrough rates the ads generally generate. InterVu, a network enabler for video and other rich media solutions, in its “Rich Media Handbook” cites the average clickthrough rate for GIF banner ads at 1%, while various forms of rich-media ads on average generate between 2% and 21%.

Brand widening

Edwards expects the campaign to provide a combination of clickthrough success as well as increased brand recognition through repeated exposure to consumers of the Mercury Center brand name. Obviously, he expects to see some traffic increases through the campaign period. The site won’t be tracking specifics as much as watching overall traffic trends during the run of the campaign. As you would expect, in the past the site has watched traffic increase in correlation with the money spent on external advertising programs. Mercury Center recently has been getting about 11 million pageviews a month. (That’s not just for its technology news, of course, but also includes its city guide products and online classifieds.) Early in the campaign, traffic is up slightly, but it’s too early to know how successful it will be.

Edwards won’t disclose how much is being spent on the campaign, but he says that because Saatchi & Saatchi is the Mercury’s normal ad agency, Mercury Center was able to negotiate some good rates on the digital campaign.

You need to be willing to spend what it takes to get noticed, Edwards advises. For news sites unwilling to spend substantial sums on a serious ad campaign, he says that doing Web ad trade-outs can be a viable alternative — espcially since most sites have substantial unsold inventory. Of course, then you won’t get the benefit of an ad agency’s expertise in crafting spots that will get noticed.

One way to look at making such expenditures is to consider it as an educational tool. “This is enormously valuable to us,” says Edwards, in that it teaches the advertising staff at Mercury Center what it’s like for their own customers. If you as a Web site are not posting and buying your own ads online, then you don’t have an experience base you can apply to your own customers who are buying ads from you.

During the process of creating the latest campaign, representatives from Starwave, Yahoo! and others came by the Mercury Center offices to pitch themselves. That provided the staff with some valuable intelligence about how their competitors go about selling themselves. And Edwards says Mercury Center did end up buying placements from those sites that made personal presentations.

Contact: Doug Edwards, dedwards@sjmercury.com

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This column is written by Steve Outing for Editor & Publisher Interactive. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at steve@planetarynews.com

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