Ads That Don't Quit

As recently as a few years ago, the average personal computer desktop was home to little more than a "My Computer" icon, the familiar Internet Explorer emblem, and maybe, if its owner was the adventurous type, a scanned picture of a young relative. Now, however, the desktop is on the verge of becoming a whole new venue through which advertisers can reach eager computer aficionados -- that is, if they choose to embrace the multiplying number of advertising opportunities available to them.

Though many still hold onto the perception of a desktop as a static entity, there are already exclusive sponsorships and ad programs that are electronically form-fitted to a user's stated preferences. And even a media novice can see the possibilities in adding some kind of ad component to, say, AOL's Instant Messenger, through which millions of messages are exchanged every day.

Broadly defined, a desktop application is any application that resides on the computer user's hard drive. Just about all graphics and sounds are stored on the computer; but only a small feed of data is culled from the Internet. As a result, minimal bandwidth is needed to run these applications. Desktop applications can be static (America Online or the Microsoft Network) or automatically triggered. Several examples of weather applications like WeatherBug, and AccuWeather can be configured to load automatically when the user fires up his or her computer. "They are incredibly efficient," says Andy Jedynak, senior vice president and general manager of AWS WeatherBug.

Reasons for advertisers to look towards the desktop abound. "With WeatherBug, we're not overpaying for time and space," says Video Professor senior vice president of marketing Dave Laughton. "Some of these large [media] companies are still asking for top dollar for their space, and you wonder who's writing checks to them." Similarly, it stands to reason that if computer users have gone to the trouble of downloading and installing a desktop application, those users have a high level of affinity for it. By that same rationale, users will likely trust the provider of that application not to swarm them with pop-up ads or other unwanted marketing material.

There are, of course, drawbacks. Most notably, only a handful of desktop applications have caught on with users. And while many prominent organizations and brands have jumped into the desktop advertising fray -- The New York Times, AARP, Scott's and American Express have all established relationships with the weather applications -- consumer-products giants like Procter & Gamble are noticeably absent. "I'm not sure there's a comfort level there yet [among advertisers]," says Jedynak. "Once [advertisers] get more comfortable, though, you're going to see more and more applications pop up. Without advertiser support, desktop applications can't really survive."

So what desktop opportunities currently exist for planners? Right now, a glimpse at the bottom-right-hand corner of many desktops might reveal icons that trigger weather applications (AccuWeather, WeatherBug,, Google's search-friendly toolbar, or a bold blue "E" that zips users directly to a video clip on the website. Interactive firm ID Society has developed dynamic screensavers for a range of clients, including the New York Jets and the Baltimore Ravens of the National Football League. Through these devices, the teams push statistics, news and promotional offerings straight to the desktop.

Then there's ScreenTime Media, which recently debuted a software program that allows companies to create what it calls "branded computer wallpaper" for desktops. The wallpaper can be configured to deliver ads and other promotional content directly to the desktop. For example, a Hollywood studio might create computer wallpaper for an upcoming release, through which it would then transmit information about ticket purchasing and movie times directly to the user's desktop.

To hear the makers of desktop applications tell it, users are receptive, even jubilant, to receive marketing messages. "They truly like the ads, as long as they're connected to the content," says chief revenue officer Paul Iaffaldano. Adds Jim Candor, AccuWeather's VP of new media, "The feedback we've received has been as positive about the ads as it has been about the actual weather information."

There's reason to believe that statements like these may be more than bluster. Think about the substantial number of people with severe allergies. For them, information about pollen levels is more than a passing fancy. Using desktop applications to connect with people who have a strong need could help marketers forge a strong relationship. "It's not a huge reach by TV terms, but it's an effective, impactful way to influence that consumer," says Candor.

Executives from Video Professor, whose ubiquitous TV ads and infomercials that hawk computer tutorials, reach millions every week. Laughlin says that the company's association with WeatherBug has proven fruitful. "It allows us to target a very narrow demographic," he explains. "Active computer users or people who are looking to use the computer more -- that's the sweet spot in terms of our demographics." The result: doubling or even tripling click-through rates.

WeatherBug's novel twist on the desktop marketing model is asking users to select their own sponsor from among a list of companies and organizations. "We figure, the service is free because we're ad-supported, so there's no reason not to let the user make his or her own choice of sponsor," Jedynak says. The company theorizes that once a user has gone through the select-a-sponsor process -- first he or she chooses an area of interest, then a specific company or service -- that user will be more receptive to offers from that sponsor.

The offers appear on the desktop in the form of pop-under ads or as a "brand wrap" (in which the surface of the WeatherBug is taken over by the ad content, and the weather data is transposed over it). "We have a very tightly restricted pop-under inventory -- the user sees the ad once, twice a day tops. And we brand them with 'please support our sponsor,'" Jedynak explains.

The desktop model differs slightly. Rather than ask users to select a sponsor, the company attempts to segment via lifestyle or interests. A user who indicates that he or she is interested in health issues is delivered Allegra ads; one who shows interest in gardening receives messages about Scott's fertilizer products. Iaffaldano's says his marketing goal is to "sequence" messages. "In time, the message can transform from being an ad to being an extension of the content."

AccuWeather considers its desktop application an extension of its widely praised website. The company places an ad -- just one -- right in the middle of its application, thus ensuring exclusivity for that advertiser. "We don't need to do research to know that a 90 percent ad/10 percent content ratio isn't going to work," says Candor. "In our model, we can help advertisers distinguish themselves while at the same time, making sure we don't overwhelm users with ads."

While the desktop-application marketing model is still in its infancy, there's already a chorus of critics who say that providers can do better. ID Society chief executive officer Adam Berkowitz questions why AOL has not attempted to sell products via its Instant Messenger application. "I'd have a sponsor area that says 'click here to purchase,'" he says. Alas, when asked about the marketing potential of AOL Instant Messenger, a company spokesperson meekly admitted, "We don't really do a lot with that."

As for the future, look for desktop applications to spread into any subject area or activity that inspires passion, whether it is Formula One racing, stamp collecting, or a particular music act. Once the application has connected with that passion, marketing to its users should prove a considerably easier task than hoping visitors to related websites click through on banner ads or pop-ups.

Perhaps the most ambitious predictions are made by Jedynak and Berkowitz. "Access to the Internet via desktop application is going to outpace access to the Internet via other ways within two or three years," Jedynak says. Berkowitz, going a step further, speculates that he "could see desktop applications eventually replacing Internet browsers." While it's impossible to anticipate whether this will come to pass, remember: just a few years ago, the desktop was a desolate entity.

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