Net firms to take Super (Bowl) gamble

Summary:HotJobs.com and Monster.com will spend millions for seconds on Super Bowl telecast.

The stage is set. Last year's Super Bowl champs, the Denver Broncos, will face the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII; music titans Stevie Wonder and Gloria Estefan will perform during the glitzy half-time show; and corporate giants will spend millions of dollars to captivate you with their wares during the whole extravaganza - companies like HotJobs.com and Monster.com.

Never heard of them? That's the point. While Mike Shanahan's Broncos battle it out with Dan Reeves' Falcons, rival Internet job hunting companies -- HotJobs.com and Monster.com - will go head to head with competing ads, both hoping to turn their sites into the next Web winner.

But will the gamble pay off?

HotJobs.com had only $4 million in sales last year and isn't close to being profitable. But for Richard Johnson, CEO of HotJobs.com, spending $2 million to produce a commercial and buy 30 seconds' worth of ad time during the Super Bowl is the only way to make sure his company doesn't fumble its chance at success.

"The fundamentals of our industry are changing so that a traditional marketing plan and long-term strategy are great, but if you don't have some plan to explode on the scene when it's your hour upon the stage, you're yesterday's history," says Johnson.

For Monster.com, the Super Bowl is "a big way to come out of the gate," says Linda Natanshon, the firm's vice president of consumer marketing. Just last week, the company announced it was merging with Online Career Center, both owned by yellow page advertising giant TMP Worldwide, and changing its name to Monster.com from The Monster Board.

Monster.com - the flagship business of TMP's Interactive Division, which posted revenue of $13.3 million and an operating profit of $775,000 for the third quarter of 1998 -- is one-upping HotJobs' already well-publicized Super Bowl play by airing its commercial three times during the game and pre-game, paying about $1.6 million for each 30-second slot.

Should make cents
Analysts agree the plays on Super Bowl Sunday make sense.

It can cost an Internet company at least $5-10 million for prime placement on one of the heavily trafficked portals like Yahoo! or for an anchor tenancy on America Online. And with click-through rates on banner ads having dropped to less than 1 percent, the million or so dollars spent in a big blowout like the Super Bowl is not a bad investment, especially for a company in a rapidly growing market like online job postings.

"If you're a total unknown it makes all the sense in the world," says Jon Mandel, co-managing director of Mediacom, the media services agency owned by Grey Advertising, which buys space and time for marketers like Reebok. "No Internet company has made it without old fashioned outdoor or network TV advertising," Mandel adds.

To be sure, the Super Bowl reaches more people in one day than currently log onto the Internet in a year. During last year's Super Bowl XXXII, NBC set records, with over 133 million people tuning in, making it the third largest program in television history. (NBC is a partner with Microsoft in MSNBC.) That compares with an Internet population of around 50-60 million, according to industry estimates.

No doubt, the Super Bowl is also the Big Bang for Madison Avenue; it's where America's premier marketers like Pepsi and Visa debut their snazziest, splashiest ad campaigns.

Big statement
"It makes a really big statement to the viewers tuning in as well as the statement it makes to Madison Avenue and Wall Street," says J. Max Robins, columnist with TV Guide. "It says, 'We're playin' with the big boys here.' "

In this case, HotJobs.com may have already gotten a return on its investment, even before its commercial airs. In December, the company received a lot of publicity when Fox rejected HotJob's first commercial, a spot that showed an elephant and a zookeeper in a cage, as tasteless. Since stories about the rejected commercial appeared in major newspapers like The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, new accounts have gone up 16.8 percent and total job postings have increased 13 percent, according to Bob Liu, head of marketing at HotJobs.com.

The ad that will appear next Sunday features a lonely security guard who fantasizes about glamorous jobs, says CEO Johnson.

The Monster.com ad also taps into the fantasy vein by showing people who remember the dreams they had when they were young, says Natanshon.

Good game plan
A look at past statistics shows the game plans of HotJobs.com and Monster.com are on the ball.

Back in 1996, Autobytel became the first pure Web company to buy into Super Bowl fever, and in 1998 the online car buy service returned with another commercial.

"It absolutely worked," says Autobytel vice president of marketing Ann Benvenuto. "It exceeded what we were expecting."

In fact, Autobytel has become one of the Web's three largest online car buying services along with autoweb.com and Microsoft's CarPoint.com. And on Friday, Autobytel filed to sell 4.5 million shares for up to $16 each in an initial public offering.

Yet even before hitting the IPO track, the Irvine, Calif., company decided to sit out this year's Super Bowl.

"It was very good for us to do at that place in our life," says Ann Benvenuto, Autobytel's marketing senior vice president, "but it's no longer new and we wouldn't get the same consumer awareness from it."

There are alternatives

Instead, this year Autobytel is investing its million dollars on a sports sponsorship with basketball's National Collegiate Athletic Association, including 48 30-second commercials and billboards during games.

"That has more longevity than the Super Bowl," says Benvenuto.

A bigger lesson might be that of Garden Burger, which ran a commercial during the final episode of "Seinfeld" on NBC. The little known Oregon-based marketer of vegetarian burgers spent more than $2 million on a 30-second ad -- the priciest TV commercial ever -- about a hula dancing man who impresses his date with a Garden Burger.

"Garden Burger's strategy was to build the brand," says Bob Toomey, analyst with Piper Jaffray. "It certainly helped them significantly."

Garden Burger's revenues in 1998 increased 80 percent to an estimated $99 million, Toomey says.

No sure thing
Still, advertising in the Super Bowl doesn't work for everyone.

Back in the 1997 game, CompuServe spent more than $1 million for an ad spot in what it presumably thought was a sure touchdown.

At the time, rival America Online was mired in network glitches and subscribers were livid over chronic busy signals -- and CompuServe hoped to cash in on its rival's problems with an ad that poked fun at AOL.

But a year later, CompuServe and its two million members were acquired by AOL -- proving that in the world of business, as in the Super Bowl, turnovers can cost you the game.

Topics: Start-Ups, IT Employment, Microsoft

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories

The best of ZDNet, delivered

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
Subscription failed.