Companies selling mortgages, drug testing services and even fast-food chicken sandwiches used to make educated and expensive guesses about how to lure customers.
Would people like retired Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman enough to be drawn into his mortgage pitch? Would pharmaceutical company staffers be intrigued by one firm's offer to set up drug trials if the campaign included a mock Beatles album? And would anyone watch a Burger King video of a person in a chicken suit throwing pillows or trying to fly?
The advertising firms that concocted these online campaigns know - with a certainty that was unusual before the Web - that each ad was a hit.
Unlike traditional newspaper, billboard, TV and radio ads, the Web has the unique virtue of letting companies count every click, know what works and swiftly remove what doesn't. "Can I take a risk on the Internet? Yeah, I can pull it off in a second," said Ed Russell, assistant professor of advertising at Syracuse University.
Web sites also have to be compelling, varied and well organized enough to lure viewers and keep them coming back again and again, said Russell, a former account manager at Saatchi & Saatchi in New York and Europe.
Burger King's odd "Subservient Chicken" ad at www.subservientchicken. com is one example of how the unusual and even bizarre can be effective online, where people seek out the ads they want and tell their friends to look. Russell said "that thing had millions of hits," with people putting the chicken- suited man through his antics.
> Experimenting cheaply
And because posting online can be far less expensive - thousands of dollars for a Web video versus millions for TV air time - ad teams and their corporate clients are more willing to take creative chances. "You have to be more entertaining," Russell said.
A Web site named discoversouthwestny. com promotes three Western New York counties. Eric Mower and Associates made it interactive, offering Web visitors panorama photo views of different towns by clicking on a map. Since it went up, visitor traffic jumped to 1,000 hits a day from 1,000 a month at an old static version.
For Depew's SKM Group, online creativity meant having a video clip that lets Super-Bowl star Troy Aikman "walk" across the screen when the InterBay Funding Web site first opened. It "really makes him pop out," said Carolyn Gullo, director of interactive services.
SKM tracks clicks to be sure the setup works. When the second- from-the-top link to the events calendar of free seminars turned out to be more popular than the other two in the center column, the calendar was moved up one place. Once there, it got even more clicks than before, said Gullo. "The center panel is working. People are constantly clicking on it, so we keep it there."
Finding ways to get people to stay on Web sites longer and to come back again and again is the point of online ad campaigns. The more often people connect, the more likely they will go to mortgage seminars, e-mail InterBay links to colleagues and sign up for the free personalized business postcards the site offers. If all goes as planned, InterBay will sell more mortgages.
In the two years since the site has been developed with more interactive options and things to click, word has spread among brokers and Web registration has tripled. "Not only is InterBay sending out communication, but it's having this huge, massive audience sending out materials for them," Gullo said.
Users on the site also confirmed the wisdom of hiring Troy Aikman as spokesman. In a six-week period, 200 brokers who signed onto the site took a survey that found: 92 percent of them recognized Aikman; 24 percent said he drew them in; 47 percent said he made the site more credible; 17 percent said they would choose InterBay because of who the spokesperson was.
> Getting on Google
To reach Web users, downtown Buffalo's Crowley Webb mixed innovation, faux record albums sent out the old-fashioned way as stamped mail and Internet savvy to market its Tennessee client Praxis, a firm that manages studies for drugs that are pending government approval.
On a morning in December, account executive Tricia Barrett explained how she'd been bidding to get a link to appear on Google after someone typed a search using "depression" or other related words. The pricey link space she wanted was in one of the top three prime spots along the right side of the first page of Google search.
There, if the price had been right, Crowley Webb would have posted an offer that explained how to apply to be part of a study of a new drug to treat depression. These margin ads appear along the edges of the "natural" list of Web links.
She had been willing to pay $1.10 per click. But bidding had gone up to $1.20 and Barrett wasn't willing to go that high. She settled for a less expensive place lower down on the page, planning to check the prices again in a few days.
"We set a campaign budget for the month," she said. "We don't want to - in the first two weeks - use up all of our budget because the click rate is high."
About 85 percent of people who use the Web find sites they want by typing into Google and Yahoo, she said. To capitalize on this and wind up on the "natural" search listings, Barrett and her colleagues code key words into the Web pages they create for Praxis and other clients.
Because of the coding, a person who types searches with "bi-polar," "manic," "depressed" and a slew of other related words and phrases may get links - as paid margin ads, or "natural" searched results - to an offer to consider joining a Praxis-managed study.
"You're finding people who are interested in exactly what you're trying to recruit for. It's not not like you're sending a blanket direct mail piece," Barrett said. "We are getting more qualified participants faster through this approach . . . It's kind of staggering."
> Wooing to Web site
The Web has also made luring new pharmaceutical clients for Praxis more productive than before, said Barrett.
A campaign her firm launched last spring featured a series of mock record albums mailed to 5,000 Praxis clients and prospects in the pharmaceutical and biotech business.
The same size as a classic vinyl album, they were mailed, shrink wrapped in clear plastic, the way record albums used to be. Inside was a round albumlike business card.
The first edition was a version of "Meet the Beatles" was called "Meet the Researchers." It featured four "researchers" leaping in the air and a gold sticker that said, "You can be a clinical research rock star. Praxis can help." The mailing was followed by an e-mail with a photo of the "rock band" and a link to the gopraxis.com Web site.
"It led people to learn more about Praxis without having to have that phone call," said Barrett. "Rarely are you going to get the prospect that picks up the phone because of a direct mail piece."
In past when there were no Web addresses to check for information, a clever mailing may have amused, but not provoked a phone call. Luring someone to click on a Web site can be simpler. "They can do it on their own time," Barrett said.