OPA Study Favors Members' Sites, Ad Execs Challenge Premise

The Online Publishers Association will unveil new research today concluding that Web users who visit sites of their members are more desirable to some marketers than online visitors at Yahoo, AOL, MSN and other portals.

But digital advertising executives say it doesn't necessarily make sense to compare the portals--which offer vast reach--to sites of individual publishers, which often serve niche audiences.

The OPA's report concludes that visitors to its 50 members' sites, including The New York Times Co., Bankrate.com, ESPN.com and Edmunds.com, are more likely than visitors to the major portal/search properties (including AOL, Google, MSN, and Yahoo) to conduct certain marketer-friendly activities. For instance, the report states that visitors to member sites are more likely than portal visitors to buy or lease a luxury car, trade stocks, purchase real estate and take vacations.

"Across a broad spectrum of activities and demographic measurements, OPA audiences offer a significant advantage for advertisers," states the report.

Specifically, the report concludes that OPA visitors are 97% more likely than the population at large to own or lease a luxury car, while portal visitors are 65% more likely to do so. OPA visitors also are 117% more likely to trade stocks, bonds or mutual funds online, compared to portal visitors, who are 65% more likely to do so. OPA site visitors are 21% more likely to have purchased real estate in the last six months, while visitors to portal sites are 3% more likely to have done so; and the OPA audience was 71% more likely to have taken five or more vacations in the last year, while the portal audience was 40% more likely to have taken five-plus vacations. The OPA compiled these statistics based on panel data from Nielsen//NetRatings @Plan Summer 2006 index and MRI's Spring 2006 index.

OPA President Pam Horan said the organization is releasing the study to demonstrate the worth of advertising on its members' sites. "There's an incredible value that we have to offer," said Horan.

But some ad executives say that media buys at portals and OPA sites work in tandem. "It's never an either-or situation," said Jeff Lanctot, general manager of the aQuantive online ad agency Avenue A/Razorfish. "It's how do they fit together?"

"What we focus on is, how does the mix of sites, the combination of digital touch points, lead you to meaningful engagement with the consumer," he added. For instance, he said, car buyers might start their research at Yahoo Autos and then, after they have narrowed their options, go to a site like Edmunds.com. Last year, 35% of Avenue A/Razorfish's media billings were in vertical sites, while 13% were at the portals, Lanctot said.

Sarah Fay, president of Aegis' interactive ad agency network, Isobar, US, added that the huge number of visitors at portals distinguished them from the OPA sites, which draw more specialized audiences. "The portals are a little bit more fluid. They have more people coming through them," she said. In addition, Fay said, portals offer sophisticated targeting options that allow advertisers to reach precise audience segments. "You can do behavioral targeting within Yahoo and can be very efficient within your buy, and go right after the behavior you're looking for," Fay said.

At the same time, OPA sites "provide an excellent environment for contextually relevant advertising," she said. "OPA sites have focused content and therefore attract loyal visitors that are serious about the subject matter they publish."

Emily Riley, an advertising analyst with Jupiter Research, added that in addition to the large audience, portals also offer search advertising, which allows marketers to get in front of consumers while they are researching purchases. "These are things that a branded content-oriented site cannot compete with," she said.

Yahoo sites last month drew 129.7 million unique visitors, while Microsoft sites garnered 119.4 million and Google captured 107.3 million, according to comScore Networks. By contrast, the New York Times Digital--which includes the Web sites NYTimes.com, Boston.com and About.com--drew 40.5 million uniques, while ESPN.com garnered 20.4 million.