Can’t Fault Salon for Trying

Jared Spool

July 31st, 2005

Salon.com, an online magazine, recently changed the way they handle their Site-Pass advertising system. It’s an interesting change with subtle implications and has a lot to do with some of the research we’ve done in persuading people to pay attention to advertising.

If you haven’t seen Salon’s old Site-Pass system, it worked like this: if you wanted to read an article on the site, you were given a choice to signing up to be a premium member (which cost money) or getting a free one-day pass to the site. The price for the one-day pass? You had to watch an advertisement. After watching the ad, you had free access to the site for an entire day. If you return tomorrow, well, you have to watch another ad.

The mechanism is provided by a company called Ultramercial. At first glance, it might seem that the Ultramercial Site-Pass idea is a winner: advertisers get a dedicated chance to really impress a site user. Different from the various types of flash distraction methods that we see on sites today, Ultramercial is making a proposition: view our movie and we’ll let you have access to a site other people have to pay for.

But, from what we can tell, it doesn’t really work any better than any other advertising model out there. The folks advertising with Ultramercial aren’t seeing radically better results than any other campaign type. (It apparently gets slightly higher click-through, but it’s not clear those click-throughs produce any return on investment.) And it seems that Ultramercial hasn’t successfully convinced any other sites, beyond Salon, to play along.

So, they made a change: Instead of making the Site Pass proposition when the user chooses an article from the home page, they now make the user watch the movie before even seeing the home page. If you go to the site today, you get the choice screen before you ever see the home page.

Salon.com Splash Page makes users choose to sign up or get a Site Pass before they can see the home page.
Salon.com Splash Page makes users choose to sign up or get a Site Pass before they can see the home page.

It’s too early to tell if this will work better. Certainly, Salon is likely to lose some casual readers who aren’t willing to sit through the ad or sign up for the premium service. But most of their hardcore readership will continue past the page. And that readership already has premium access or has demonstrated they are willing to put up with the movies.

But that’s not the big issue. The big issue is whether the advertisers get any more share of mind. Will a user, watching the ad, actually pay attention to it? Or will they just count the moments until the ad passes by, so they can get to what they really wanted?

That’s the problem that the old system suffered from. Users were enticed by the headlines for articles on the home page enough to click. At that moment, their focus was on reading the article. If a user, intrigued by the headline “Why Hillary Clinton is Unelectable”, clicks on the corresponding link, will they really pay attention to a movie about Absolut’s newest peach vodka?

Back in 1998, Tara Scanlon wrote an article about seducible moments. A seducible moment is the point at which designers can entice users off the path to their original goal with the lure of something else. (I subsequently talked about them again in an article talking about how Sears & Dell sell financing on their sites.)

In our research, we found seducible moments work best after users have accomplished their goals, not before. When a user selects an article to read from the Salon home page, it is likely they are too focused on that article to pay any attention to anything else. So, that’s why the old Site Pass system didn’t work too well.

The new one comes at an interesting point, though. It’s before the user has refined their goal beyond “Let’s see what Salon is saying today.” Since that goal is still really coarse, it’s possible that users are more distractible by the ad. Hopefully, for Salon’s sake, that’s true.

One Response to “Can’t Fault Salon for Trying”

  1. Paul Grusche Says:

    Dear Jared, you pose some really great questions that we are only beginning to see results for at Ultramercial. I’m intrigued by the seducible moment and look forward to more research that supports best practices in online advertising especially considering how the industry has bought ad space for years up till now. In the past, the most valuable placement in media was always in the middle of the show, before the conclusion of a magazine article or during the best songs on the radio. This was perceived as the highest point of attention and therefore retention. If you wanted cheaper rates on TV for example, you bought at the top and bottom of the hour – after the show.

    Now we have flashy ads that attempt to get our attention at any and all points during the “show”, online surfing. Each ad format attempting to outdo the one before it so viewers will look their way. Relevant ads based on search behavior are at advantage if they capture someone at a time when they are looking for a product or service. But marketing isn’t just about timing or getting to a “receptive” person when they express interest to buy. It’s about engaging them in advertising that builds brand and product awareness before consumers are prospected for a sale. If you serve up advertising for a company I’ve never heard of, don’t trust and don’t understand, then you have still missed the mark no matter how relevant it may be.

    Boil down the core objective of all advertising to engagement (which leads to sales) and we believe our business model, the Ultramercial Opportunity, delivers unparalleled value. Our commercials are never intrusive, bring good will and guaranteed engagement to advertisers in addition to bridging the gap from free to fee for publishers. Whether the advertiser uses product placement, TV commercials, word searches or a t-shirt, they are hoping to get your attention so you interact with their product. Our model eliminates the biggest hurdle in this equation – hunting for an audience that will watch. Imagine focusing 100% of creative energy on marketing the product instead of an 70/30 scenario where 30% of the ad is “hand waving” to get your attention.

    Are viewers more open to a message they elected to watch? We believe so. Does interacting through the ad, as our format is designed to do, create a greater cognitive learning experience, better direct response and branding opportunity? Again, we believe so. But more to your point, if someone wants to read “Why Hillary Clinton is Unelectable” and chooses not to pay but to watch the ad from Absolut, are they predisposed to pay attention to the Absolut ad?

    To address that question, I would offer this final perspective:
    Serve 100 ads in an Ultramercial Opportunity and in any other ad format. Assume 5% are reached, interested and click. What happens to the rest of the viewers? In any other format, they are not accounted for or lost opportunity. But with our model, the 5% plus the other 95% of viewers will get the explicit value (free access) from the ad while learning about the sponsor’s product in a nonintrusive way. At the very least, Absolut may have planted some warm subconscious fuzzies for being the “good guy” that granted free access to content that light up at the store or bar.

    It would be interesting to test: Is retention higher on an ad you choose to watch? Is retention higher when you interact through an ad? Do ad units placed after an Ultramercial, reinforcing the sponsorship of the content, perform better since a full-screen, multi-page, interactive ad explained the product already? Do warm subconscious fuzzies translate to sales?

    I look forward to your insight but before parting will offer these house cleaning items. As a testament to market support of our model, after almost three years Ultramercial now accounts for over 50% of Salon’s $6.6 million in annual ad revenue. We have run 200 campaigns for over 50 Fortune 500 advertisers, 60% of which are repeats clients. We have also added publishers such as The Economist, TheStreet, Merriam-Webster, Morningstar and others. We will be launching three top sites in September and are in very active discussions with several national publications.

    As far as how Salon uses our model, the change they made is actually a product called Entrémercial. It is sold as a premier sponsorship placement before the viewer reaches the home page of Salon. It has several advantages. For the advertiser, it prominently positions them up front. It gives viewers immediate access to everything when they know they are going to indulge in the site for a while. And finally for publishers, it protects the value of all their content. This is only up when an advertiser buys the space.

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