Planting pitches

Contextual marketing--the kind of innovation that makes marketing work online.

It's called contextual marketing, and supporters say the model is an intuitive way for consumers to buy online.

There's a new e-marketing model that works like this: Let's say a Web user is reading about the Korean War on Military.com. Sitting to the left of the article is a small area where related items are featured, and the reader - obviously someone who's interested in the topic - clicks on the link for the video title Korea: The Forgotten War, which links directly to the online store of A&E Television Networks.

Content sites must experiment with new advertising models, or the only thing they'll be selling are their assets.

This nearly seamless integration of commerce and content is called contextual marketing, and supporters say the model is an intuitive way for consumers to buy online. It's also seen as an effective way for marketers to sell, since they already know a reader is interested in a particular topic. On its contextual marketing links, A&E is seeing click-through rates of 1.2 percent, which is about three times the rate of average banner ads, according to Nielsen//Net Ratings.

Those numbers are encouraging to online advertisers, but the model also benefits content sites, since they generally take a cut of e-commerce transactions. For example, A&E's 4,400 affiliates receive a 10 percent commission on every sale of historical footage, collectibles and other products.

Companies that offer contextual commerce tools and services include ePod, Merchandising Avenue, Pop2it, Trapezo and YellowBrix.

Their pitch to potential clients is clear: Content sites must experiment with new advertising models, or the only thing they'll be selling are their assets.

But the model is potentially tricky, because sloppy ad positioning could lead a visitor to question the publisher's credibility. The key is careful execution, executives say. For example, Go.com, Disney's portal site, positions its contextual marketing ads on the right side of the screen, in modules that say "advertisement."

"With this advertising model, we're not compromising the information that the user is looking for - we're using it to complement that information," says Rajiv Samant, executive vice president and general manager at Go.

CNet Networks says it will also clearly demarcate the ads it will present in its redesigned News.com section early next year. The company currently uses contextual marketing in its product review areas, and those ads typically attempt to bring about a sale.

In contrast, advertisers will likely use the index card-sized ads that will appear in News.com for branding, says Stephanie Andolina, senior strategic marketing manager at CNet.

"The reader can give me a profile, but as they come back, their information needs to change - they might want to watch the stock market or read about a Cisco [Systems] acquisition," Andolina says. "Over time, it's a wonderful opportunity for an advertiser to tell a branding story."

Examples of contextual marketing, which associates e-commerce offers with content

CollegeRecruiter.com Students looking for part-time jobs can click on an ad to buy Compaq Computer Presario PCs from Computers4Sure.com.

MyFamily.com A sponsorship module from The Steel Alliance in health section invites readers to click to learn why homeowners should consider steel countertops.

SheNetworks Visitors can buy a basted turkey from Omahasteaks.com through an ad placed near cooking-related articles.

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