Will Webcast Media Buying Succeed?

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"Nothing," Getty Oil told us years ago, "is more powerful than an idea whose time has come."

This was back when the Internet was a glimmer in some tech-head's eye, back when Webcasting sounded like something you'd do with a Popeil Pocket Fisherman, not a technology that promises to effect sweeping changes on the business of buying and selling media.

The basic message hasn't changed much in the years since Getty's gasoline sales pitches, however. Sometimes the next "best thing" still is on the horizon. And until it arrives, we can only anticipate the changes it will bring about.

The media have been craning their necks at the approach of Webcasting for several years. The prospect of combining full-motion video with the interactivity of the Internet has held out the promise of a home entertainment and business revolution offering new markets, new programming, new ways of reaching and tracking the audiences that justify advertiser involvement.

It's a great concept, but for most of us the connections are still too slow, the pictures still too small, the video still too jerky. And broadband, which will deliver full-screen, TV-quality video, is still too limited in reach to make Webcasting a mainstream advertising vehicle.

Excite@Home was in the news a few weeks ago for reaching a milestone: 2 million subscribers. This is a giant leap in the broadband world, but a small step in the much greater universe of television households.

Are we waiting for Godot? In all likelihood, the opposite probably is true: There is no better time than the present to jump on board this technology. Some history lessons are in order.

The commercial success of each new media technology rarely arrives at the same time as the technology itself. From print to radio, from radio to television and from television to cable television, true advertiser acceptance has come only after the medium has reached critical mass.

Less than two decades ago, when cable programming still was in its formative years, media buyers were reluctant to commit dollars to networks reaching only a fraction of the Big Three's network television audience. In a reach-dominated business, even the most popular cable networks got little consideration until their distribution reached 20 million homes.

Today, no media buyer would submit a plan that didn't include an array of cable networks. Cable has moved from an unproven vehicle to a mainstream media buy, its place in the "show-me" ranks being taken by the banner ads and buttons of the Internet.

Webcasting will arrive with stepped-up cable, satellite and DSL broadband distribution. Forecasts call for as many as 25 million broadband homes within the next four years. "Demand for high-speed residential usage is building like water behind a dam," said John Zahurancik, vice president, broadband research at The Strategic Group. "As operator deployment and provisioning create an avenue for user adoption, we will see a rush of growth in home high-speed usage."

Agencies already are gearing up for that day. A survey by Arbitron Internet Information Services earlier this year reported that, while agencies are spending 5 percent or less of their budgets on Webcasts, interest in the genre is growing.

Of the 80 percent of agencies surveyed that did not buy Webcasts for their clients last year, 56 percent had plans to use them this year. More than two-thirds of the 20 percent already buying Webcast time plan to use the streaming ads more this year. Perhaps more importantly, 81 percent of ad agency executives surveyed believe the format will grow significantly in the next three years.

Three years can be an eternity in the Web business. There's a tendency for online advertisers to make decisions based on the Internet right now, to measure everything in the black and white of click throughs, page views and revenues returned, but sponsors and agencies never should forget that they are in this for the long haul.

In just a generation, media plans have evolved from basic broadcast buys, to broadcast-cable mixes, to the broadcast-cable-Internet combination of today. While buttons and banners can be the shortest distance between buyers and your products, the most effective campaign remains one that works across a variety of media - television and Internet - to build brand awareness and repeat business.

The Internet already is acknowledged as the ultimate direct response medium; second quarter sales this year were up 5 percent to $5.52 billion. Webcasts represent the next great online opportunity, particularly for the marketing savvy who can take advantage of the medium's limitless reach, frequency and tracking capability, and who have the vision necessary to do it now.

•Toni Knight is president of WorldLink, Los Angeles. Reach her at tknight@worldlinkmedia.com.

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