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Net advertising outside-the-box

When AOL bought a seven-story-tall balloon, it wasn't full of hot air. Instead it was taking advantage of a prime marketing opportunity.

When America Online sent a seven-story-tall balloon to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta this week, the online giant wasn't full of hot air. Instead it was taking advantage of a prime marketing opportunity.

More than 900,000 people are expected to turn out in New Mexico for the annual event. AOL, for its part, figured that the "low- to mid-six figure" price tag for its balloon was worth it to reach thousands of people in a fun and inexpensive way.

Chris Geisert, senior manager of brand promotions for AOL, said AOL's hot air balloon, launched in April, will make stops at 35 events a year during the next three years

Hot air balloons are just one example of Internet companies taking a unique approach to their marketing and brand awareness campaigns in order to distinguish themselves in the competitive online world. Yahoo, for example, has its own purple-and-yellow Zamboni machine at San Jose Arena, and Lycos sponsors a stock car in the NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Division.

Many Internet companies are running television and radio advertising campaigns, and several Web-based companies offer their own branded credit cards. But as the leading Internet companies grow, they are looking for more and more creative ways to attract new users.

"Our promotions have a uniqueness and we're trying to associate ourselves with something that middle America understands, likes, and feels a bond to," said America Online's Geisert.

AOL also is sponsoring an acrobatic airplane and two racing stock cars. Although AOL's cars run on smaller stock car circuits, NASCAR fans are considered to be among the most loyal in the sports world, and the cars still are seen by millions of racing enthusiasts and TV viewers each year.

AOL's brand awareness campaigns may be a little different from those of its competitors, but "they're what middle America and mass audiences can relate to," Geisert said.

In addition to sponsoring a stock car, Net directory Lycos has an agreement with New Line Cinema to promote and host sites for the film company's new releases in exchange for in-theater placements that drive traffic back to Lycos.

"When we can make it come full circle, that's when we feel like we get the bang for the buck," said Jim Hoenscheid, director of promotions for Lycos.

In addition to sponsoring a Zamboni--the machine that grooms the ice rink--at San Jose Sharks professional hockey games for two years now, Yahoo in early September set up information kiosks at the new Times Square Visitors' Center in New York.

"It gives us a physical presence at a popular, high-traffic location," said Grant Winfrey, Yahoo's senior brand manager. "We're providing useful information plus branding."

Jeff Ratner, managing director for brand dialogue at Young and Rubicam, an interactive marketing agency, said Internet companies, more than others, must make a splash with their advertising efforts. "The goal is they're all trying to scream a little bit louder than each other," he said. "Because they see themselves in a more non-traditional light, they're more apt to use non-traditional [marketing] methods."

Non-traditional marketing methods also are attractive to Internet companies because, often times, they can arrange cash-and-barter agreements.

Most of all, though, the unique affinity-based advertising opportunities allow Net companies to be seen in a fun, hip way.

"Part of it is influenced by the culture of the Web, and that's to do on-the-edge, off-beat types of things," said Jim Nail, a senior media analyst at Forrester Research. "In order to get new users you have to go offline because the Web's a very confusing place."