Exchanging House Ads for Online Content

By: Steve Outing

Does your newspaper Web site need something more to attract users, especially kids? Do you not have the budget for adding substantial new content? Then you might like the deals being offered by Web content companies like Headbone and Yack, which are entering deals with newspaper publishers to provide what in essence is free, co-branded content in exchange for print and online promotion of their service.

The Toronto Star has been experimenting with such deals, and thus far the outcome has been promising, according to the newspaper's top new media executive. The Canadian publisher has entered into deals with both Headbone, a kids game and contest Web site, and Yack, which provides a "TV Guide"-like service for scheduled online chat events.

Extending the brand

The basic model is similar for both content companies. Each has developed a North American Web site that stands on its own as an independent brand. But to extend their networks, Headbone and Yack -- in what is becoming a common model on the Web -- offer co-branded versions of their services that can run on a partner newspaper Web site with the news partner's logo accompanying each page of the site. Individual deals vary, but typically the publisher gets free content and a share of banner advertising on the co-branded site. And the content companies get a guarantee of promotional advertising (selling the co-branded site) in the print editions and Web sites of the publishers.

Rocco Rossi, vice president of strategic planning and new media for the Toronto Star, is enthusiastic about the deals. He especially likes Headbone, which offers a site chock full of interactive games and contests for kids. The "Headbone Zone" on The Star's Web site contains exactly the same content as is on the national Headbone.com site, but each page also contains The Star's logo. And the URL is different for the co-branded site -- http://hbz.thestar.com -- so that users of The Star's Headbone area stay within the confines of The Star site at all times. Rossi says it's easy for users of Headbone to easily navigate back and forth between the Headbone area and the rest of The Star's site. And when a Star user bookmarks a Headbone page, they will always return to the co-branded Headbone area.

Rossi says that The Star wouldn't have created such extensive kids content on its own, yet he recognizes the importance of reaching out to children using the Internet. Headbone offers "a wonderful deal because the content is incredibly rich," he says.

Headbone survives from advertising sold on its site, and its 20 newspaper partners -- which also include the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Nando, Philadelphia Online and Sacramento Bee -- share in some of that ad revenue. Headbone director of marketing Mark Bolger says that newspaper partners who take part in the company's syndication program are allotted a certain percentage of "ad avails," which they can sell into the co-branded Headbone area. Publishers keep the "lion's share" of newspaper-sold ads, while Headbone keeps most of the revenue from ads that it sells nationally.

The power of house ads

Headbone benefits most from this kind of deal by requiring that its partner publishers run frequent print and Web site ads promoting the co-branded Headbone site. (Bolger emphasizes that publishers are being required, in effect, to promote their own Web content.) Early experience shows that this is an effective strategy, particularly once print advertising kicks in.

Rossi says that when the Headbone program started, it was promoted only through Web banners on The Star's site -- and the Headbone area saw about 1,000 accesses per day. Once print ads in the newspaper started running, traffic immediately went up to 5,000 per day but then settled down to about 2,000.

What really pushed up traffic was contextual placement of ads within the print edition. When a small Headbone ad began appearing on The Star's comics page, in the top corner, traffic immediately spiked to 12,000 accesses per day, and has settled in at about 10,000, Rossi says.

The problem with print "house ads," of course, is that newspaper Web sites don't always have easy access to them. Rossi says that like many of his industry counterparts, he must compete with other departments at The Star for limited ad space. Print ads like those promoting Headbone and Yack will only continue if the business model behind the deal proves successful, he says, so the pressure is on the vendors to make sure the deals bring in enough money or other benefit to keep newspaper executives' attention. The newspaper industry is full of services-traded-for-print-ad deals that failed when publishers didn't continue running enough print ads to sustain the deals.

Headbone's Bolger says he keeps detailed logs of traffic to the various newspaper co-branded sites, and he can tell merely by looking at the numbers when a paper has run a promotional ad. He sends monthly reports to his newspaper partners, highlighting examples of traffic spikes that resulted from print ads. With continued print ad support, his reports document "stair-step growth" in traffic to the co-branded sites. Bolger hopes that this strategy of documenting the impact of continued print promotion will keep his partners running the co-branded print ads that he supplies to them.

Rossi says The Star's publisher has been supportive of deals such as Headbone's and Yack's, and thus far, "we've had models that, touch wood, have been working for us." While constantly watching to make sure that the deals perform well enough to warrant the continued advertising, Rossi thinks that his Headbone and Yack deals make sense because they are building an audience of younger people -- who like online games and participate in online chat -- who will keep coming back because they get hooked on the co-branded sites.

Contacts: Mark Bolger, mark@headbone.com
Rocco Rossi, rrossi@thestar.ca


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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