Internet: Missed opps beyond the banner

Grarrl's teeth have seen better days. His mighty chompers are now filthy and many are falling out, leaving gaping holes in his snout. He's even crying, the poor guy. Only one thing can prevent such dino disrespect: a thorough teeth cleaning with a Crest Spinbrush.
Aptly dubbed 'Attack of the Plaque,' this Procter & Gamble sponsored game on NeoPets.com both promotes the Crest product and entertains users in the online fantasyland of Neopia. It's a type of interactive marketing that NeoPets calls 'Immersive Advertising,' and it's catching on.

Grarrl’s teeth have seen better days. His mighty chompers are now filthy and many are falling out, leaving gaping holes in his snout. He’s even crying, the poor guy. Only one thing can prevent such dino disrespect: a thorough teeth cleaning with a Crest Spinbrush.

Aptly dubbed ‘Attack of the Plaque,’ this Procter & Gamble sponsored game on NeoPets.com both promotes the Crest product and entertains users in the online fantasyland of Neopia. It’s a type of interactive marketing that NeoPets calls ‘Immersive Advertising,’ and it’s catching on.

‘From day one we made a conscious decision to not use banners or buttons – ads should be interactive. How can a banner be engaging?’ asks Rik Kinney, EVP of NeoPets in Glendale, Calif. ‘It’s more than product placement – we want to bring real world products to our world.’

That world is Neopia and it’s a smash in Canada. It’s the number-one destination for male teens from the ages of 12 to 17. They spend on average 576 minutes per month making these cute, fuzzy animated characters that are lovingly called NeoPets.

Overall, Canadian teens spend an average of 819 minutes per month online – up nearly 100 minutes since last year. Usually after school or after dinner – between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. – teen surfers spend much of their time on interactive sites. MP3 trading sites like MusicCity Morpheus, which ranks third with males and females at around 135 minutes per month, are very popular.

Communication applications like ICQ (126 minutes) and MSN Messenger (the number one application for teen girls, who spend 457 minutes using it per month) eat up a lot of teen time as they message one another with e-lingo like ‘lol,’ and emoticons like ;) and :o. And of course, they love to just surf.

Web sites like NeoPets, which attract the often hard-to-reach young people who have grown up with the Internet, are being forced to think a little more creatively with their advertising these days. Everyone knows, the banner craze is over.

Strategies like NeoPets’ Immersive Advertising can be an effective way to reach youth online: after all, the Web’s population is expected to grow from 533 million users to 945 million by 2004.

Some companies, such as Procter & Gamble, have taken note, but Kinney fears many others feel like the Internet has let them down. ‘A lot of other advertisers have felt burned by the Net because they haven’t really seen any results from banners,’ he says.

But sponsored games aren’t the only vehicle advertisers can use to reach the teenage audience. There are many others marketers haven’t quite jumped on yet. The main problem is providing a message in the proper context. Teens today want functional information – in other words, a pop-up ad for diapers probably wouldn’t jive with Morpheus users, but ads for the newest REM disc would.

For instance, Montreal’s Cossette Communication-Marketing recently teamed up with MSN Messenger to try to attract 18- to 24-year-olds to a Quebec joke-site called jobpoche.ca (‘The site for jobs that suck’ is its slogan), sponsored by Bell Mobility’s Solo package. Ads ran below Messenger’s dialog box revealing that a mascot is the worst job any person can have. Laughers such as ‘Worm breeder. Do you know a more crappy job than this?’ really created a buzz.

For six weeks, from March 13 to April 23, over 90% of the ads on the French Canadian version of MSN Messenger were for jobpoche.ca. The saturation worked, the site garnered 88,675 clicks directly from the Quebec market. ‘MSN Messenger is a truly cost-effective communication solution,’ says Cossette spokesperson Pascal Desrosiers. ‘And since it reaches almost 50% of our target group, it’s an endless source of clicks.’

It’s not easy for marketers to make noise online, but it can be done in other, more creative ways. Nike’s new football campaign, ‘The Secret Tournament,’ from Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam and @radical.media, also had a strong Web component. An interactive Web site, www.nikefootball.com, was fashioned specifically for Netizens and recreated the look and feel of the campaign online.

Also, when Xbox entered the European market, it used viral marketing to spread the word. Its ‘Mosquito’ TV spot, developed by BBH London, which featured depressed bloodsuckers pining over video games replacing their humming wings as the soundtrack of life, took the Web by storm. The video was planted on a gamer site called playmore.com. People downloaded it constantly, and soon it was making the rounds as a forward to inboxes everywhere. The end result: instant hype and brand awareness.

That’s not enough for Jeff Spriet, a youth marketing consultant at Toronto’s Wiretap. He says people should take a more holistic approach when trying to market to today’s hard-to-reach Webteen.

‘I’ve often thought that an advertiser could come in as a white knight,’ Spriet says. ‘People would read ‘This site is sponsored by whomever.’ That would really garner respect from users. It positions you as good citizen, like a grassroots approach to marketing online.’

Sponsoring sites like Morpheus or its counterpart Kazaa to help keep them running despite the music industry’s objections would engender trust, Spriet suggests. He takes the notion further in recommending that a huge multinational could help facilitate a giant e-mail campaign aimed at the five big record companies and the government pleading for MP3 tolerance.

‘Taking that Good Samaritan approach could definitely help – maybe a marketer could upgrade a site’s servers,’ Spriet says. ‘I really think these companies should worry less about eyeballs on their ads and more about community. These are teens we’re talking about; you won’t find a more marketing-savvy group. Don’t try to snow them, get creative instead.’

Boys: Top 10 domains/digital media applications
(by average minutes spent per usage month)
Boys 12 to 17 – at home – February, 2002
Rank Domain/Digital Media Application Average Minutes Spent
1 NeoPets.Com 576.3
2 MSN messenger service 292.2
3 MusicCity Morpheus 137.3
4 Kazaa media desktop 133.2
5 ICQ applications 126.5
6 MSN.com 83.5
7 Yahoo! Messenger 71.0
8 MSN.ca 32.1
9 Shockwave.com 31.1
10 Yahoo.com 25.3
Source: Jupiter Media Metrix, Total Canada at home, February 2002
Girls: Top 10 domains/digital media applications
(by average minutes spent per usage month)
Girls 12 to 17 – at home – February, 2002
Rank Domain/Digital Media Application Average Minutes Spent
1 MSN messenger service 457.5
2 NeoPets.com 173.5
3 MusicCity Morpheus 155.7
4 ICQ applications 127.0
5 MSN.com 110.8
6 Kazaa media desktop 75.8
7 Yahoo.com 25.2
8 MSN.ca 15.0
9 About.com 13.8
10 Sympatico.ca 11.7
Source: Jupiter Media Metrix, Total Canada at home, February 2002