Ad nauseam

Self-professed "Spam King" Sanford Wallace, whose very name once provoked bilious protests across the Internet, is again finding ways to irritate people in the name of marketing.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
10 min read

"Spam King" leads new trend in annoying promotions

By Stefanie Olsen
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
February 5, 2001, 3:30 a.m. PT

Self-professed "Spam King" Sanford Wallace, whose very name once provoked bilious protests across the Internet, is again finding ways to irritate people in the name of marketing.

Rather than promoting and proliferating the kind of junk e-mail that earned him his dubious moniker, Wallace is backing an entertainment site dubbed PassThisOn.com that automatically spawns no fewer than three browsers when patrons try to exit it--one of which shuttles them to an affiliate such as JobsOnline.

"Because control of content is in the hands of the viewer on the Net--and that's anti-everything in our advertising and marketing culture--this is their attempt to retain control," said Terrance Alan, managing general partner of Smoke & Mirrors, an Internet design and site-hosting company. "It forces eyeballs to look at something that they aren't normally looking at."

If, that is, they ever come back.

Gartner analysts Gareth Herschel and Walter Janowski say the real question is whether Web advertising gimmicks ultimately can boost revenue for mainstream advertisers and Web vendors.

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Therein lie the high stakes in this form of marketing, known as multiple-window launching, or "exiting," in the industry. PassThisOn's tactic, which borrows heavily from marketing practices that largely have been confined to pornography sites, is the latest in a spate of seemingly desperate attempts to survive the digital economy's shakeout. The risk of alienating visitors is obvious, but the Internet industry's slowdown has led entrepreneurs to push traditional limits for success in a sector obsessed with traffic tallies.

"This is a game to juice the Web traffic numbers," said Laura Mitrovich, program manager in Internet market strategies for The Yankee Group. "In an era where we're not sure what the sustainable model will be, they're probably thinking this is better than nothing."

This is hardly the first idea aimed at keeping visitors on a site. But programs such as those used by PassThisOn and JobsOnline take online marketing to an aggressive new level for mainstream, heavily trafficked Web sites. When viewers type in a new address to leave JobsOnline, for example, another Web browser interrupts the attempt with a job registration page that includes a "Stop" sign and a message that reads: "One minute could change your life." After clicking this window away, the viewer gets yet another registration page for a site such as The Motley Fool.

Although this may be one of the more extreme examples, other popular sites are increasing their efforts to retain visitors. Ask Jeeves, LookSmart and others use frames to hold consumers captive as they surf the Web. Another tactic used with increasing frequency is "mousetrapping," which renders a browser's forward and back buttons useless so visitors are forced to stay on the sites.

Promotions known as pop-up and "interstitial" ads--typically half or quarter the size of a browser window--are also becoming more common at large sites such as AltaVista and RealNetworks. Web ranking site Top9.com lists AOL.com and Netscape as the top two sites that launch pop-up windows. Other Web publishers are also experimenting with new advertising formats, including CNET Networks, publisher of News.com, which launched larger, interactive ads last month.

Advertisers find these promotions more appealing because they are larger than the usual banners and are thought to encourage consumers to click through them more often.

"Pop-up promotions are slipping into the mainstream because banner ad rates have dropped through the floor and people are migrating to a number of techniques to get the consumer's attention," said Craig Nathan, chief technology officer for privacy start-up MEconomy.

The practice of corralling people with browsers was raised to an art form in the porn industry years ago, said Jay Kopita, a spokesman for Seattle-based Flying Crocodile, which operates an Internet audience tracker for porn sites. Sites began using software scripts that essentially take control of the visitor's browser by continually launching another page when visitors try to leave the site.

The question, of course, is how much mainstream patrons will put up with. Wallace and others have shown in their spam initiatives that they are more than willing to experiment with a relatively new medium--and their customers--for the chance to strike gold.

"We've been doing this practice for the last 12 months, and we're still in the top 100 (of measured Web sites). And we've been profitable for 12 months," Wallace said.

Unlike pop-up ads, which are not Web pages, full browser pages served by JobsOnline and PassThisOn can be counted as "impressions"--the units used to determine advertising rates on the Internet. The more impressions a site can claim, the theory goes, the more it can try to charge advertisers.

"Marketers are like dogs: They jump up on top of you and try to lick you everywhere, and it's just painful to have to ward them off at every corner," said Jason Catlett, a privacy advocate with anti-spam group Junkbusters. "Surfers are an individually minded lot, so the marketers are using browser technology to extend and exploit that attention in ways that really annoy the consumer."

The issue also underscores the long-standing debate over how to count and use online traffic. Internet measurement companies often base their rankings on projections from a limited number of Web site visitors. The methodology, which is used to determine traffic on the entire Web, is frequently called into question but remains the closest thing to an accepted standard used by the industry.

JobsOnline shot to the top of the charts for traffic among employment-related Web sites in the second half of 2000. It still leads the pack and fluctuates in and out of the top 50 of all sites online.

According to PC Data, JobsOnline garners the most of its traffic, about 13 percent, from PassThisOn, which attracted 7.1 million unique visitors in December--more than the Web site of U.S. shopping chain Wal-Mart. JobsOnline pulled in 4.6 million unique visitors that month, surpassing career sites that are more widely known, including Monster.com and HotJobs.com.

PassThisOn, which encourages visitors to share such tidbits as dog animations and cow pictures, boasts of its own standing with several media measurement companies. It touts such recognition as "the fastest growing site on the Web" from PC Data and "top newcomer" from Jupiter Media Metrix on the top of its site.

"There's good publicity in having large traffic numbers," The Yankee Group's Mitrovich said. "What lies behind that is the implicit assumption that you'll sell more advertising."

That principle has critics questioning the validity of multiple windows counted as impressions, calling them the online equivalent of empty calories because they do not necessarily measure a potential consumer's interest. They point to such statistics as the average time visitors spent on JobsOnline in December: about 2.6 minutes, according to Jupiter Media Metrix. That stands in marked contrast to the 22.9 minutes reported by second-place career site Monster.com.

"The online advertising and marketing business so far has been built on getting very large, very quickly. This mind-set is ingrained in Web entrepreneurs that bigger is better, so you can claim king of the mountain, make more money, and get more funding," Mitrovich said. "But the traffic seems unqualified."

Wallace countered that PassThisOn's traffic has grown purely from what's known as "viral marketing," a term used to describe the swift spread of information online--usually via e-mail--sparked by friends and co-workers rather than by advertising.

PassThisOn has "earned its traffic," Wallace said--so much so that he has himself become the target of Web opportunists.

Wallace said his site is being victimized by a "typo squatter," a person or company that has registered various misspellings of Web addresses. In Wallace's case, a company called Pointcom.com has registered the name "PassThiOn.com" (missing an "s") that also launches multiple windows when someone tries to exit the site.

"Usually these are not reputable companies...I'm about to start taking legal action," Wallace said.

Pointcom did not return phone calls for this article.

Like Wallace, JobsOnline President Tony Priore defends the browser tactics and says the company is already profitable.

"We may use hooks as promotions, but I don't think that's a bad thing," said Priore, a former executive at e-mail marketing service Yesmail.com.

Chicago-based JobsOnline, which does not disclose any of its affiliate relationships, has a business model that differs markedly from those of other employment-focused Web sites. Unlike Monster.com and HotJobs, the site doesn't charge listing fees but makes money through advertising and marketing to its job seekers. When visitors sign up with the service, they must opt in to receive third-party promotions.

"You can run a Super Bowl ad and that can add up to nothing," Priore said. "These are legitimate tactics that are used in marketing."

Still, Priore said that evaluating the technique of multiple-window launching is one of his charters as president.

"If enough people find it annoying, we'll probably find a different way to generate revenue," he said.

At least some design professionals think that would be a wise idea. Those like Joshua Ulm, director of interactive design studio IoResearch in San Francisco, say that launching multiple windows won't catch on because consumers' desire for privacy will eventually prevail.

"Throwing something up there that the visitor didn't ask for is unprofessional--it's basically the cold call in the middle of the night," Ulm said. "The audience is not going to be comfortable with that, which is why the pop-ups have to be all that more exciting in order to take your mind off the fact that they just insulted you."  
Q&A After holding the title of most reviled businessman on the Net for years "Spamford," Sanford Wallace has abandoned his throne.

Now he runs PassThisOn.com, a popular entertainment Web site that encourages visitors to send e-mails of jokes and short animation clips to their friends.

But there's more up Wallace's sleeve than "viral marketing" and the voluntary, word-of-mouth promotion that implies. His bag of tricks includes forcing multiple browser windows on visitors as they try to leave the site. The practice peppers Web surfers with annoying pop-up ads and creates artificial page "hits" that boost traffic numbers for PassThisOn and various affiliates.

Say what you will, those tactics have helped make PassThisOn a success, says Wallace, who says the site has been profitable since its inception in October 1999 despite a downturn in the market. In an interview with CNET News.com, the former "Spam King" discussed his controversial marketing strategies.

CNET News.com: Some view the use of multiple browser pop-ups as controversial. What do you say to them?
Wallace: You can look at it in a positive or negative way. We made the business decision to not expose the user (to ads) during the time on our site. We just save the ads for when they leave.

My vision is if I watch TV, I would much rather get an ad during the break and not during the show. So I'm not going to advertise during the show; I'm going to wait for the break.

Some people will complain that (CNET has) an ad in the middle of (some pages). They would prefer the ad to come after it. But we can't stay in business without ads or without charging people; that's the whole key to the dot-com failure.

The next version of our site will allow users to turn off the pop-ups if they wish. However, in that case, it will be a paid subscription or they will have to accept more ads in their e-mail. We are going to figure out how much money we will lose by not having the pop-ups. We haven't made any final decisions.

What happened to Smartbot.net? (The business-to-business communications service, founded by Wallace in 1998, had a stringent anti-spam policy posted to its site.)
We dropped that after we noticed how much more profitable the PassThisOn.com project was. The reason it was so profitable is because it generated so much traffic, which allows us to create deals with third-party companies who pay us a bounty for new user registrations.

How much money do you make on your sponsorship deals?
We make an average of 25 cents per click-through. We don't do any impression deals; we only do cost-per-action deals. (For example, PassThisOn.com sponsor) Pagoo.com will pay us over $3 if someone actually registers for their Internet answering machine trial.

That's the best-case scenario for the advertiser because we take all the risk.

Are these leads you send to sponsors quality ones?
We do very well with our partners because we target our ads very carefully to meet the interests of our general user. (Plus), the people who are going to our site...meet the general criteria for people who look for freebies on the Net...like signing up for the Pagoo answering machine.

What about privacy?
We don't violate anybody's privacy; everything is disclosed. We're giving something away for free in exchange for consumers' permission to use private information. It's no secret. Publisher's Clearing House has been doing this type of thing for years.

Some would say that launching multiple browsers mimics what porn site operators have done.
The porn industry is always three years ahead of the learning curve. They realized that in order to survive, this was one strategy that worked. (But I would argue that) some go too far. You can get caught in a porn loop for an hour.

We made a determination that after three or four ads people will get annoyed. So we limited it. 

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