Commentary

Best of the Net: Top Online Publishers

Introduction

A few months ago we decided to salute the Best of the Net. In December, we honored the best online advertising campaigns. In January, we handed out the "e" Awards to top interactive advertising agencies. This month, since even the best agencies' most brilliant campaigns would never find the light of day without some sort of an ad vehicle, we're completing the equation by honoring the Best Online Publishers.

On the following pages, we profile sites that have enticed the most attractive audiences and earned the respect and support of dozens of major advertisers. Some are online counterparts of offline giants, some are interactive-only operations, but every one of the frontrunners seems to have found that delicate balance between content and advertising and figured out a way to give both their readers and their ad partners what they need (some have even turned a profit in the process!)

How did we pick them? First, we limited our selections to ad-supported websites only, since they are the ones of interest to this magazine's readership of online planners and buyers, and used a combination of qualitative and quantitative research to narrow our selection.

Then we surveyed those on the front lines of online buying Ñ the media directors and their staffs of the top interactive agencies. We asked them to tell us from first-hand experience, which sites were the best in 2002 in terms of content (quality of site information), sales service (responsiveness, flexibility), going beyond the banner (inventing new ad units, adopting rich media), measurement (ad serving accuracy, delivery), and negotiation (moving beyond rate card).

Next we analyzed Nielsen//Net Rating figures to determine audience size and quality, and AdRelevance data to see the sites' advertising strength. Lastly, to make the final selection, we used our own editorial judgment to determine the extent to which each site has been an innovator or leader in the evolution of online advertising and the medium in general. For complete website rankings and a pretty good "cheat-sheet" for who you should consider for your next media plan, we provided a comprehensive chart (pages 26-27) listing all top 50 online publishers.

Considering that most of this year's picks graced these pages 12 months ago in MEDIA's first Best Publishers rankings (we did tweak the category list a little this year), they're quite obviously doing something right. More details on each of their approaches follow.

Please join us in saluting these industry leaders.

by Masha Geller


Business and Finance

CBS.MarketWatch.com

Five is a lucky number for CBS.MarketWatch, this year's Best Online Business & Finance Publisher. The company celebrated its fifth anniversary in 2002 with a flurry of good news and product improvements, including its announcement of profitability (remember that?) in the third quarter. Long a favorite among advertisers for its attractive and creative online executions, CBS.MarketWatch.com put its whole package together to win best business and finance site honors in our publisher of the year.

Editorially, MarketWatch launched several new sections: "Capitalism's Crossroads," focusing on how American business is faring in the worst bear market since the Great Depression; "Scandal Sheet," with online profiles featuring the latest updates on investigations of corporate wrongdoers; and "Auto Industry in Focus," a special comprehensive overview of the state of the auto industry and various opportunities within auto stocks. It also included an in-depth preview of the top 2003 models as well as a buyers' guide with tips for prospective car buyers.

According Scot McLernon, EVP sales & marketing, 2002 brought new or expanded relationships for MarketWatch's licensing business with several notable clients, including Fortune.com, Mellon Bank, and Bank of America. Nearly 700,000 users have chosen to subscribe to the company's email Alerts product, with over 400,000 signed up for breaking news bulletins. More than 1 million Alerts are sent each market day.

"We wanted to once and for all break away from any perception of being only personal financial content," McLernon says. "We have 80 journalists watching the markets and the businesses associated with those market movements.

Really good business news informs you and helps you understand what that means to you, your investments, and your potential investments. We do that every day with just the right ratio of relevant ads per page."

MarketWatch has long been known as an innovator in rich media and branding. It broke Budweiser's first online ad campaign in 2000. For 2002, McLernon was most excited about a new product called Introductory Message. It was designed to achieve branding objectives for clients who wanted to reach the top end of the site's affluent audience. The IM gives clients a 10-second "easel" to create a branding message to generate awareness and raise purchase intent.

McLernon is so confident about the success rate of IM that when asked what separates MarketWatch from its competitors, he says, "One introductory message and a couple million visitors."

The company is also making strides offline. The CBS MarketWatch Weekend syndicated television show now reaches 85% of the US, and the MarketWatch Radio Network is now carried on 229 stations.

by John Gaffney


Computing and Technology

CNET.com

From a financial standpoint, CNET, like most dot-coms, is struggling to align its resources with its revenue. But for editorial excellence, comprehensive new product coverage, and e-commerce, CNET is the rightful winner of this year's Best Online Computing & Technology Publisher.

A property of Ziff-Davis, CNET introduced its new product review format and ValueWatch technology in 2002. Its editorial reviews offered consumers even more comprehensive buying advice, photos, accessories, and product-related content. The new ValueWatch tool helps users determine if they are getting the best bang for the buck by comparing the prices and features of similar products.

For advertisers, CNET announced LaunchPad. The program's goal was to let marketers create immediate awareness and demand for their new products by placing short-term but big-exposure ad units on the front doors of CNET sites, including reviews and Download.com. The LaunchPad inventory was booked solid through 2002; in the month of December alone, CNET networks had 80 unique LaunchPad campaigns run across the network.

"On the advertising side, we really succeeded in not only creating demand and awareness for products like Microsoft's Pocket PC by running a LaunchPad unit before it hit the market, but also gave users integrated, useful tools to help them make their buying decisions," says Tom Jones, senior vice president of shopping services and advice at CNET Networks. "Sponsored aisles gave companies like Dell, Gateway, and Toshiba a chance to showcase their products and interact with customers on an area of our site."

Jones believes that several factors differentiate CNET from print trades and other websites. "Because CNET is online, it is able to combine high-quality, unbiased, expert buying advice and value-measuring tools with complete merchant price listings and links to make purchases. Print is not able to compete with this depth or timeliness," he says. "CNET also reviews more technology products than anyone in print or online.

Apparently advertisers agree. "CNET has a strong and loyal user base who are using its sites to learn about and buy technology products," says Adam Moore, principal, client services director, T3. "Its integrated advertising opportunities -- like our Dell aisle that is available off the front door of the site -- give us unique ways to showcase a comprehensive library of products, pricing, and company resources, which empowers users to make educated decisions within our solutions portfolio. CNET is a top choice for marketing Dell, and we see amazing results from the programs that we buy and build on CNET's site."

by John Gaffney


Entertainment

eUniverse.com

People use the Internet for many basic needs Ñ information, communication, commerce, and sometimes just to have fun. And if entertainment is the goal, eUniverse Network -- our 2003 pick for Best Online Entertainment Publisher Ñ is the destination.

One of the most visited websites on the Net, eUniverse has a diverse set of online greeting, game, cartoon, joke, and contest websites and email offerings. Its brand-name websites include Flowgo, Perfect Greetings, FunBug, Big Fat Baby, Mad Blasts, and Got Laughs, and opt-in email newsletters include Celebrity Health Watch and several editions of Infobeat and Intelligent X.

"What we give our users is a five-minute break from the day," says Marco Ilardi, Director of Web Development at eUniverse. "We allow them to get away from the daily grind and have a little fun. Our content is always PG or PG-13 [rated], and this attracts a broad range of users."

One inroad eUniverse is making with the advertising community is achieving recognition as a one-stop shop for both agencies and advertisers. "We have become a full-service content distribution company," says Steve Friedman, senior vice president of sales and business development at eUniverse. "Not only can we distribute advertising through site-based advertising or email through our array of content sources, but we can develop and execute the creative as well."

Making simple banner ads is something many sites do -- the equivalent of a radio station doing a voice-over in a 60-second spot. But eUniverse can take this service much further. "We created an integrated ad package for USA Network's The Dead Zone promotion, which included an 'advertainment' application that both entertained and informed the user," says Freeman. "We see this creative as digital currency that can be used at other sites if our clients wanted to." USA Networks is just one of the many entertainment advertisers running with eUniverse. Other Hollywood-based advertisers include Warner Bros., MGM, Turner, Buena Vista, and Fox Sports.

"They have a keen sense of both the advertising marketplace and what works on their properties," says Jeff Lanctot, director of media, Avenue A. "They don't try to be all things to all people, they just try to be a great publisher for the clients that fit." Lanctot adds that eUniverse provides Avenue A with excellent customer service, appropriate pricing, flexible terms, and a sounding board for new ideas.

eUniverse might have fun sites, but it is serious about being a top publisher for advertisers.

by Adam Herman


General News

CNN.com

It was a good year to be in the bad-news business. With the economy down, the threat of war on the horizon, snipers loose in Washington, D.C., and new corporate scandals leaving Americans shaking their heads and checking their 401(k)s, viewers were flocking to news industry media outlets for information. And one of the main beneficiaries was CNN.com, this year's MEDIA selection as the top online publisher in the general news category.

"We're lucky our content comes from the mother ship -- CNN the TV network," says Greg D'Alba, EVP of CNN ad sales. "We were integrating the TV content into CNN.com before integration was cool."

CNN.com does an excellent job of tapping into the news, using a worldwide network of journalists that pure news websites can only dream about. "CNN is a news-gathering company, and content is the story with us," says D'Alba. People can access our content online, from TV, or at the airport. The key is that the content is similar across our entire network -- that's a benefit to both our viewers and advertisers."

This is a distinct advantage that is not ignored in the selling process. "We don't push individual vehicles; we try to package the total reach equation.

Content alone is not the reason media planners consider CNN.com the top news site. CNN has been a leader in innovative advertising practices, including streaming video ads, time-of-day targeting, broadband targeting, and content integration, to name just a few. Currently it is developing a wireless platform for viewers to access their news on the go and looking ahead in 2003 at interactive TV and video-on-demand. Can advertisers be far behind?

"We see growth on the online side coming from business-to-business, automotive, and technology, which are some of our strongest advertising categories on TV," says D'Alba. "However, since we position online as a program extension to TV, we believe this enables us to compete in every [advertising] category that runs on our network."

Content and service might get an advertiser to place CNN.com on the plan the first go around, but in the "what have you done for me lately" world of online advertising, results matter most. "We continue to work with CNN because they perform," said Pete Lerma, managing director of the Dallas-based advertising agency Click Here. "The campaign we ran for our client Travelocity drove traffic to their site, produced the highest click through rates and the lowest cost per booking of any website on the plan. You can't argue with those results."

And it's hard to argue with the selection of CNN.com as one of the top publishers of the year.

by Adam Herman


Men's & Sports

ESPN.com

Sports are one of the few things that men, regardless of age, income, or race can agree upon. Not their favority team of course, but devoring any and all information they can get on it. So if you're a planner targeting men in one of their prime touch points online, then ESPN.com is one of the places where you want to be.

It's all about content and that's why ESPN.com is this year's Best Online Men's & Sports Publisher.

Like its offline namesake, which redefined cable TV after its launch in 1979, ESPN.com offers a blend of breaking sports news, scores, statistics, and analysis for every sports fan, from the casual enthusiast to the hard-core aficionado. It also offers tie-ins to ESPN's cable channels and to ABC Sports, which is also owned by parent Disney.

"ESPN is an attractive media partner due to its ability to facilitate cross-media solutions for advertisers via broadcast outlets, online, and in-book," says Patrick Benson, associate media director at Deutsch Inc.

"It's the things that make sports more than just sports. It's part of these people's lifestyles," says Andy Sippel, VP of marketing at ESPN.com. Sippel says that for men in the target demographic, sports are the common point of conversation on- and offline. He says advertisers know that.

"They know that sports is the number one thing in young men's lives, they want to be part of the conversation. ESPN allows them to do that. It's more than just the scores. It's about that conversation," Sippel says. ESPN.com can deliver impressions beyond ESPN's networks, ABC Sports, and ESPN magazine, before and after the sporting event.

"Another way to think about it is this: You get a lot of your media weight from TV during the game. And everything that happens beyond the game takes place online and in the magazine," Sippel says.

Andy Sims of SF Interactive says ESPN.com's strengths to an advertiser start with the company's sales team. He says it's a talented and experienced team that is able to customize advertising opportunities that meet the requirements of brand-focused and highly targeted DR clients alike. "In each case, they are flexible with pricing and inventory requirements required by the unique objective of our client. Beyond this, ESPN is one of the premier content sites on the Web. I know that when I put them on a media plan, my client can expect a quality audience and intrinsic benefit of associating with a premium publisher," Sims says.

by Paul J. Gough


Newspaper Sites

NYTimes.com

The winner of this year's Best Online Publisher in the Newspaper category should come as no surprise to anyone. For the second year in a row, it's The New York Times Digital -- NYTimes.com -- the online counterpart of the nation's best-known newspaper.

According to the December 2002 Nielsen//NetRatings, NYTimes.com leads the news/info category for time spent with 37 minutes per user per month, attracting nearly 11 million active readers with an average HHI of $86,000. Why do readers love the Times? Craig Calder, VP of marketing, NYTimes.com, says the company's major strength is its brand. "We have all the critical building blocks that allow us to create innovative solutions for our clients. First and foremost, we have a world-class brand that instills respect and trust. We also have the highest-quality content in our category. Finally, we have a loyal and engaged audience that spends a lot of time on our site."

All of those factors add up to an attractive advertising vehicle.

Heidi Browning, media director at Organic, which has partnered with NYTimes.com for such clients as Washington Mutual and Sprint PCS, says the site is "a consistent top performer for both branding and direct response campaigns."The site also delivers on brand metrics and is a critical component to Organic's integrated and immersive online campaigns, she says. "The superior quality of the New York Times audience is evident as we evaluate sales transaction data and build customer lifetime value models for our clients."

Sonji Stewart, VP media services at PinPoint Media, actually calls The New York Times Digital a "PinPoint Media preferred vendor." PinPoint handles a significant number of travel clients, and Stewart says that the agency's past and current campaign success with NYTimes.com makes the site "one of the top recommendations for local and international luxury hotel clients."

Stewart echoes other NYTimes.com clients in saying the site's account executives are efficient throughout the stages of planning, price negotiation, and campaign management, and excel in putting together customized packages. They've "turned around RFPs for me within 24 hours,"Stewart says.

But for Calder, the original architect of the Surround Sessions concept (which won the site first place in last year's rankings,) it's still all about the brand and the audience. As he puts it, "Our users' commitment to the brand and content means they are more likely to react to advertisers' offers. Other sites may have the audience but not the brand or the traffic but not the retention. NYTimes.com's brand, content, and audience allow us to design ad innovations like Surround Sessions that help advertisers be more efficient and effective."

by Masha Geller


Portals

Yahoo.com

Yahoo! is what defines the Internet experience for many users. It is their homepage, news source, email, instant messenger, search engine, and online entertainment. And more and more, advertisers are starting to feel the same way. For this reason, Yahoo! was selected as MEDIA Magazine's Best Portal of 2002.

The clearest indication of Yahoo's newfound coziness with advertisers is its bottom line. In Yahoo's recent quarterly earnings report, advertisers are buying ads and revenue is up. According to David Riemer, vice president of marketing solutions, the reason for the turnaround is Yahoo's refocused priority on advertisers. "We see partnering with brands as our priority," he says. "This is something that hasn't always been the case with our company." Riemer is positioning Yahoo as a branding vehicle, and advertisers are starting to buy into it.

At the forefront of this are the rich media campaigns that seem to jump off the page. One of the many examples was the August 2002 Gap ad that took over the Yahoo homepage. The Gap creative "folded over" the top right-hand corner of the homepage to display the words "TV Sneak Peek." When you clicked on the words, about 75% of the page folded down to reveal a huge Gap ad and a free offer to take a sneak peek at The Gap's new TV spot. An advertiser using the Web to launch a TV spot -- what is the world coming to?

It is not only these splashy branding ads that are attracting advertisers. Another revenue driver for Yahoo is the search pages text advertising. It may not be as glamorous as the big rich media ads, but it is just as effective at driving traffic to sites. The recent acquisition of Inktomi should bring this ad segment into even greater focus.

Yahoo is also retailoring how it sells its individual properties. Prior to the arrival of Riemer and Wenda Harris Millard, Yahoo's SVP chief sales officer, Yahoo was seen primarily as a "front page" broad-reach site. "Now we are positioned in a customer-focused mentality," says Riemer. "We really leverage our site data to see what people do on the network and how key audience segments interact with our different brands. With this information we can create very vertical advertising packages that are highly effective."

One client who agrees with this assessment is Jeff Marshall, media director at Starcom IP. "Last Year was the transformation year for the large portals," says Marshall. "That transformation was boldly led by Yahoo. Yahoo! was the first and the best at becoming true agency/client partners through collaboration, innovation, and strategic alignment."

In 2003 Yahoo plans to release new research tools to help measure the brand impact of online campaigns and see how they tie into offline awareness as well.

by Adam Herman


Search Engines

Google.com

This search engine has become so mainstream that its name has become synonymous with its function in pop culture lingo. Not sure about a historical date? Google it! Need to research which vacuum cleaner to buy? Google it! But there is more to Google than being a hip term that earned MEDIA Magazine's recogonition as top search engine site for 2002.

As Jonathan Hsia, media supervisor at Mullen, puts it, "Google is so effective because it allows advertisers to define a target based not on demographics or editorial affinity, but rather top-of-mind interest. Marketers can then easily create a relevant connection with a highly targeted audience. The bare-bones style creates a strictly utilitarian feel, appropriate for consumers and business decision makers alike; it decreases clutter and forces the advertiser to provide value after the click, all the while shortening our time to market and lowering production costs."

In other words, what you see is what you get. The site is simple, allowing users to search for information under five categories: Web, images, groups, directory, and news. Results are listed in a clean, straightforward layout, and most searches yield the two types of sponsored advertising that Google accepts: Premium Sponsorships and AdWords. Premium Sponsorships are the links that appear before the search results (no more than two will appear at a time), and AdWords are CPC campaigns that run in the boxes along the right-hand side of a results page.

Joseph Laffey, VP of media services at Slingshot, says that the CPC campaigns Google offers are worth the extra time advertisers spend working on them. "Even though Google is more labor-intensive for managing ongoing campaigns, it should always be included when investigating cost-per-click opportunities."

Google estimates advertisers buying one-month sposnsorships will reach an estimated 62.2 million global unique user. Google also touts its search engine is used by 150 millon a day, and AdWords CPC campaigns appear on the Google website minutes after users create their ads, and not days later.

Being able to search for results without running into any banner ads or pop-ups doesn't hurt either. Chris Theodoros, director of worldwide agency relations at Google, says that the company hopes to keep making improvements and building on its success. "In 2002, Google worked to deliver faster, more relevant, and more comprehensive search results to our users. We applied this same dedication to our targeted advertising programs and helped our tens of thousands of global advertisers acquire new customers and generate sales. We look forward to continuing to develop valuable and effective relationships with advertisers, marketers, and agencies in the coming year."

by Amy Corr


Travel

Expedia.com

What makes Expedia MEDIA Magazine's top online publisher for travel for 2002 as well as the most popular travel site on the Internet?

"We have the best platform for advertisers because we have the best product for consumers. The two go hand in hand," explains Young Lee, director of partner marketing and integration at the Seattle-based company.

Expedia is the eighth largest travel agency in the U.S. Expedia's Expert Searching and Pricing technology delivers the flight options available online. ESP allows customers to dynamically build trips that combine flights, Expedia Special Rate hotels and other lodging, ground transportation, and destination services and activities.

Expedia has been recognized in awards such as PC Magazine's "Editors' Choice" and Forbes "Favorite General Travel Site."

Expedia is all about travel, with users -- 13 million unique visitors a month -- searching for and making reservations for flights, hotels, cars, vacations, and cruises. And those users are upper--scale, with a mean household income of $83,000 and a propensity to buy online. Expedia limits the number of ads on its pages to usually no more than three or four, however, these are typically the who's who of travel advertising.

"For advertisers, that makes those impressions impactful. We don't clutter the site. When an advertiser buys with us, they are buying a very focused placement. That's very good for advertisers. They get a very clean palette to advertise on. They don't have to fight for eyeball share with 12 other creatives on that page," Lee says.

There is also no intrusive advertising that takes over the page, because Expedia doesn't want anything to disrupt the customer's primary endeavor: buying travel.

Advertisers can target ads by destination or origin. So if you're interested only in marketing to people traveling from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, you can do that and not worry that the ads are being served to someone going from Omaha, Neb., to Atlanta.

"We can target impressions to locations that you really care about," Lee says. "If a travel client is looking to target a pre-qualified audience and reach consumers while they're engaged in making travel reservations, there is no better place to intercept them," says Patrick Benson, associate media director at Deutsch Inc.

by Paul J. Gough


Women's, Family & Health

iVillage.com

Online media buyers agree: If it's women you're after, iVillage is the place to find them. This year's winner of Best Online Publisher in the Women's, Family, and Health category, iVillage has a firm grip on the finicky female demo, boasting more than 9.5 million members, which makes it one of the top 15 digital media properties in the U.S. And it's not just the quantity of visitors. iVillage reaches one in six of all women online aged 18+, one in five of all women online aged 25 to 54, and one in four 25 to 34. Top that off with an average household income of $78,000 and you've got the best female audience anywhere on the Web.

But it's more than traffic that attracts advertisers to this network of 19 subject-specific sites. "We go beyond offering a general advertising environment because of the trusted relationship we have built with our visitors," says the company's VP/GM of sales, Peter Naylor. "We know how to market to women better than anyone out there and we share our learnings with our advertisers to help them reach women more effectively."

For one thing, iVillage takes the concept of online integrated sponsorships (sponsored content, customized bridge sites, special promotions) quite seriously and has impressed many an advertiser, including Clairol, Olay, eDiets, and Match.com, with its approach.

"When Digitas needed a comprehensive and integrated holiday program for our CPG client, iVillage stepped up to the challenge," says Sue Develin, media supervisor with Digitas. "They pulled together seve

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