There’s no doubt that popular websites such as video clip destination Metacafe continue to be strong players because visitors know that when they come back again and again, they can be treated to fresh content to inform them and tickle their funny bone. They can play the short clips over and over again and send the links to friends without having to pay for visiting the site. Every page of Metacafe has a small, unobtrusive ad that helps support the site financially.
This is nothing new. In a world where Google’s Ad- Sense text ads can be added to any kind of website, the idea of monetizing any and every site on the Internet is a foregone conclusion. What media companies have come to realize is that in the fragile Web environment, your popular digital destination today can be a retread tomorrow if the revenue streams become too thin. Metacafe has to compete with the 800-pound gorilla YouTube, as well as Revver, LiveLeak.com, Dailymotion and a variety of other free video sites.
When AdSense can only do so much in terms of monetization, the notion of seeing, hearing or downloading an advertisement to view free content is gaining incredible momentum. Once afraid of ad backlash before they had even thought of trading ads for content, media companies, artists and even software developers are jumping on the ad-supported bandwagon. So many different kinds of online media and marketing efforts are dipping an ad-supported toe in the water, that it begs the question: Will everything eventually be ad-supported?
The Ad Landscape
In 2007, marketers spent more than they ever had on TV, radio, print, outdoor, movie theater and Internet ads – $175 billion, according to ZenithOptimedia. That number is up 5 percent from 2005. If you add direct mail and other direct-response-type ads into the mix, that’s $269 billion. Also in 2007, companies spent $13 billion on Internet classified, search and display ads, and that is expected to double to $26 billion by 2011.
“In mass media history and as media fragments, the ad model will continue to be popular for eons,” says Jack Smith, senior vice president of strategy at 24/7 Real Media. “Consumers really like free content – they will pay for HBO, but mostly they like free stuff. Bigger media is always ready to play. There’s plenty of supply right now, and demand will have to catch up.” 24/7 Real Media recently integrated its search marketing efforts with Baidu.com, China’s most popular search engine. It specializes in targeted Web advertising globally, with a strong mobile capability.
Smith says that as emerging countries keep seeing an increase in Web users, there will be ad-supported Web services opportunities, especially in places like China, where PCs are not pervasive in the home. Microsoft has made a bid to enter that game by introducing two ad-supported Web services – its popular Windows Live and Office Live. The applications and surrounding services are available from the Web, without having to download the applications themselves.
Microsoft’s plan has both free and paid versions of Windows Live and Office Live with ad-supported basic services. The company then tries to sell add-on services. The ads are served up through its recently developed AdCenter advertising system. Some experts speculate that a completely ad-supported Windows-based operating system that would live on the Web and not on your computer is not that far off from becoming a reality.
In the ad-supported software category, it’s been argued that the first wholesale successes were email-based programs – such as Hotmail and Gmail – that used ads to completely cover the cost of the free, Web-based programs where none of the information, email files or address books are housed on your computer. In the world of systems management, even, there are companies such as Spiceworks, which is a free, ad-supported network monitoring software for network management for small businesses.
“But small businesses should read the fine print,” says Jay Hallberg, co-founder and vice president of marketing at Spiceworks. “The free use of the application is usually a hook to get people to buy,” adding that these are usually “sales gimmicks” and not truly free applications.
Big companies are also experimenting with ads for content. AT&T is testing its “1-800-YellowPages” service in Bakersfield, Calif., Oklahoma City and Columbus, Ohio. It provides free directory assistance for callers who listen to short audio ads. The ads are targeted by the category of the number being asked for. Its technology provider Apptera will do the targeting and ad serving.
In the video category, viewers have already said they will definitely watch an ad to get to the good stuff. A recent survey by the Associated Press and AOL said that 71 percent prefer to watch an ad for free video. Only 23 percent said they would pay a fee for ad-free video. Currently though, demand for ad-supported video has not provided enough inventory. “As we get more and more people finding video through AOL, we’ll create more inventory through that process,” VP of AOL Video, Fred McIntyre, said to ClickZ News. YouTube is still testing small ad bricks that scroll or pop up over the lower portion of the video window.
Worrisome to some big media marketers is that the barrier to creating and posting ad-supported Web content is so low, the ensuing glut will bring down online ad rates and spoil profit margins, leading to the demise of struggling Web ventures. “Free media is a good thing,” offers Dave Morgan, chairman of target marketing firm TACODA Systems. “With off-line media, distribution is expensive – think papers and trucks and postal costs. ” It was a nice model for the media companies, but not for the consumers. Web and Internet distribution of ad-supported publishing means much more free content and more diversity of content for many more people. That is good, not bad.”
Music companies and ventures that offer digital music and ringtones have discovered the benefit of ad-supported freebies. MySpace, for example, as it starts to lose market share, is pushing its music-sharing deals and shifting to free, ad-supported downloads in conjunction with more than a few major recording labels.
Other major music companies that launched ad-supported streaming music recently include Sony BMG, Warner Music Group and EMI. All three use San Francisco’s imeem as their streaming service, which plans to share revenue with the labels. “The music industry needs big ideas because small incremental improvements won’t change anything. For example, nobody has tried some of the crazy revenue shares we are trying on imeem,” says Dalton Caldwell, founder and CEO of imeem.
File-sharing companies that traffic in a good deal of music are trying to monetize their networks by running ad-supported versions. Atlanta company Intent Mediaworks says that 60 percent of its users are willing to endure pop-up ads. Intent Mediaworks has technology that adds advertising to streaming music on file-sharing programs. Other companies such as Qtrax and Nettwerk also aid in the streaming of ad-supported music downloads.
Some critical opinions doubt the ad-supported model will pay for website operations, let alone see profits. “I have yet to see the model that makes me feel good they’ll get enough money out of advertising. The question is, can they get enough mass to lower the royalty?” says David Card, a senior analyst at JupiterResearch. Allan Klepfisz, CEO of Qtrax, says the challenge is to “demonstrate that ad-supported peer-to-peer is lucrative enough that everyone is going to be happy. The real issue for the industry is that right now there are all these people paying nothing for music.”
The artists themselves are getting in the game, not to be left out of the loop by their labels. RCRD LBL, a network of ad-supported online labels, deals in independent bands unaffiliated with the big record labels. Their downloaded MP3s and streaming music both carry ads. Like David Bowie before him, who was early in his use of interactivity and the Web in the ’90s, rock star Peter Gabriel recently launched We7, a free ad-supported music download service. Ads are sent to users based on demographic information they provide on the site that allows for better targeting by advertisers. The ads are heard at the beginning of songs and albums.
Ads on the Move
Mobile marketers are also showing a huge attraction to an ad-supported model. Avot Media launched its mV mobile video service that promises better video quality in conjunction with viewing an ad. Rhythm NewMedia cut a deal with Vodafone in Spain to send ad-supported video to its more than 4 million handset subscribers. Interspot has an SMS service that will provide free text messaging. The text messages come with ads that can be geo-targeted. Mobile coupons will also be offered as part of the service. Start-up Blyk will offer free calling in European countries by listening to ads first. Though Finland-based, the service will start in Britain and spread out to other European countries from there.
CBS television said it will launch a high-speed wireless network in midtown Manhattan that can be connected to by cell phones, laptops and other personal devices by going through the CBS ad-supported landing page. The program also allows voice over the Internet (VoIP) calls. The ad-supported page will include content such as breaking local news and national news. Broadband hotspot platform AnchorFree is just one of the wireless providers that are offering free broadband connections by viewing an ad.
Not to be excluded, the world of gaming upgrades to a mobile platform through Hovr, which is an ad-supported free mobile gaming community. Through the service, consumer websites, mobile portals and carriers can offer users hundreds of free mobile games. The games can be wrapped around a specific brand and still carry Hovr’s ads.
MySpace isn’t going to be left out of the mobile surge either. It has launched a free, ad-supported cell-phone-ready version as its parent, News Corp., rolls out mobile versions of FoxSports.com, gaming site IGN, AskMen and local TV affiliates – most in ad-supported environments.
Instead of being annoyed by the flood of advertising rising from the ad-supported mobile programs, people are proving to have an open mind. “If you ask mobile users if they want ads on phones, 78 percent will say, ‘Not really.’ But if the ad comes with something for free, the survey result flips the other way,” says Brian Suthoff, senior director of business development at Third Screen Media.
Also in gaming, video gaming network G4 is testing video ads in their games. The video ads are delivered by YuMe Networks, specializing in IP-based video ads. YuMe executives have said that the company expects to do more business as user-targeted video ads employed by sites such as BitTorrent sign more “deals with publishers that want to experiment with ad-supported downloads.”
Even in the off-line world, seeing an ad can lead to your daily coffee fix. A company in Japan markets an ad-supported coffee vending machine. If the buyer watches a 30-second ad, he gets a free cup of joe. The cup it comes in has an ad as well.
24/7 Real Media’s Smith believes “we will better understand the consumer with more ad-supported companies.” He says the “gold standard is seeing the measurement that comes in that environment. We will value it more.”
As the final piece of evidence that the ad-supported model may indeed be ubiquitous, Freeload Press has made a deal to send out ad-supported electronic textbooks to students at 38 universities. Perhaps the age of the highlighter pen is truly over.