Caching In on the Election

Internet.com (Nov. 22, 2000)

Talk about robbing Peter to pay Paul … err, Sam.

In hyping it’s election night “Live Interactive Television experience on the Internet,” ABC’s promotions department told viewers watching TV coverage anchored by Peter Jennings to ignore the commercials so they could take part in an online contest.

It was just one example of the sometimes-schizophrenic relationship between television and the Web that has emerged in the drama of America’s first true e-lection.

“During commercial breaks, answer bonus questions related to the elections broadcast and American political history,” a page on ABCNews.com instructed on election eve, promising that visitors would be able to “interact live with Peter Jennings … like never before.”

In the end, viewers certainly ended up interacting like never before, but in ways the marketing whiz behind the contrived promo – or the rest of us — could not have imagined.

With traffic to online news sites hitting record levels on election day, then shattering those records as the tumultuous week raced on, Web advertisers hit pay dirt in a medium many still view with suspicion.

“One thing that holds true on the Internet is that as traffic increases, so do the benefits to advertisers,” says Marc Ryan, director of media research at AdRelevance. “That’s one of the things that makes the Internet unique – a banner is something that is delivered only when someone is there to watch it,”

And there were plenty of people there. All of the major news sites saw huge surges in visitors, particularly when Americans went to work the morning after, eager to stay in touch with the drama in Florida. CNN.com logged 4 million unique visitors the day following the election, with MSNBC on its heels at 3.5 million, according to Jupiter Media Metrix

At Least Advertisers Won’t Demand a Recount

The news staffs of the web operations, traditionally second-class citizens at the networks, were ecstatic; many advertisers were even happier.

“Back in March, we sold an election 2000 sponsorship that was integrated online and on-air,” says Robert Romano, manager of ad sales at CNN. “The five advertisers that bought it get exclusive sponsorship of the election coverage, so they are very happy.”

Since most banner advertisers are buying impressions, the dramatic traffic increase is likely to produce a sizable revenue bump for Internet news sites.

“No doubt there’ll be a spike in ad revenues and impressions on the news sites,” says Ryan of AdRelevance, which releases a weekly report Friday that tracks exactly that for last week.

“This is like having a Superbowl with 30 quarters in terms of getting all our good customers on the air,” crows one network ad sales exec who – for obvious reasons – didn’t want to be named.

But it’s not just the sites that are benefiting from the crisis, some advertisers are getting serious bang for their buck.

“People who have invested in sponsorships that don’t rotate are really benefiting from an increased audience that we wouldn’t have anticipated,” explains MSN sales manager Michael Siegenthaler, who sells packages both on MSNBC and MSN’s political site, Slate.com.

Many sites are also reporting a sudden surge in ad enquiries, something not all dot-coms are positioned to take advantage of.

“A lot of these guys can’t respond as quickly as the on-air guys can, maybe it’s because of the technology of getting the banner ads together,” Romano speculates.

All the News that Eventually Fits

But it hasn’t been the ads alone that have been affected by technology. Error messages, interminable loading delays and frozen video have all been served up right along with the news. Still, the longer the crisis goes on, some experts believe, the more Americans will become used to turning to the web for their daily fix on the world.

“Traffic to Napster went through the roof when it announced it would close and that produced a lot of interest and traffic to other streaming media sites and the industry benefited overall,” recalls Ryan of AdRelevance. “The same will happen here, providing opportunities for other sites to earn ad revenue.”

That may be true of the CNN’s of the world, but the specialty elections sites still have to get out of the shadow of the big boys. Politics.com is an example of that. In the midst of the most dramatic election in modern history, the site announced it would soon pull the plug. Despite reporting up to 7 million hits a day last week, the homepage banner space contains not a paying advertiser, but rather the somewhat desperate message: “Impressions. Eyeballs. Click-throughs. We deliver. Advertise now.”

But no one is. “How can a political site possibly compete with CNN, NBC and ABC?” Politics.com chairman Howard Baer plaintively asked on election eve.

The shot-in-the-arm couldn’t have come at a better time for the Internet. The collapse of Internet ad stocks last week and warnings of an “e-marketing meltdown” seemed to spell grim times ahead.

The question is, once the fisticuffs in Florida are over and the country finally has a president, what does the Web do for an encore?

Those who argue there is no turning back should be reminded of CNN, which rode the Gulf War to record audiences only to watch in dismay as viewers fled once the crisis was over.

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