Will HotBot's ad blitz work?

Wired Digital is spending upwards of $10 million to advertise its search site on TV and radio, but analysts question the value of the strategy.

Jim Hu Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Jim Hu
covers home broadband services and the Net's portal giants.
Jim Hu
3 min read
Wired Digital is hoping that fans of the Drew Carey Show will also warm up to Boolean searches on HotBot.

But analysts say the company's new television advertising campaign may cost too much money and be too late in the game.

Wired, the parent company of HotBot, ratcheted up its plans today, announcing it will spend $10 million to $15 million on an advertising blitz to expand its user base. The decision comes a week after HotBot launched a redesign of its page.

As previously reported, the initiative will target consumers in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Austin, Texas--four U.S. markets known for more Net savvy demographics. For six weeks, HotBot ads will be seen on a diverse pool of TV programs, ranging from The X-Files to Monday Night Football and sitcoms such as Just Shoot Me. Local radio ads will be introduced in November, and TV ads will reappear in January.

"We've chosen event-oriented programming," said Wired Digital spokesman Andrew de Vries. "Heavy Web users don't sit down for a while at night and watch TV, they gear their TV watching around a specific event."

HotBot's initiative to draw in a more mainstream user base may make sense on the surface, given the breadth and reach of advertising on these broadcast media. Many other Internet companies, especially search and content aggregation services commonly called "portals," are using television as a major conduit to promote brand awareness and to boost traffic.

Services such as Snap, which is a joint venture of News.com publisher CNET: The Computer Network and NBC, and the Go Network, a newly branded portal coproduced by Disney and Infoseek, are relying heavily on prime-time TV slots to increase market share and consumer awareness for otherwise relatively unknown brands.

The HotBot campaign is aimed at experienced and new Web users alike, and acts as the service's first concerted foray into mainstream households. The goal of the campaign is to double its current monthly audience of 8.5 million visitors, de Vries said.

But analysts remain skeptical of HotBot's drive to increase mainstream awareness.

Creating a popular brand among mainstream audiences, they say, is a laborious and expensive task. With one concerted push onto the airwaves, it is questionable whether the HotBot campaign can create a lasting effect in its targeted market.

"Brand is something that requires constant expenditure, especially when going out to address 80 percent of households not online," said David Simons, managing director of Digital Video Investments. "If you want to launch a national brand, you're talking about a minimum of $50 million to get the kind of exposure you need when you're going out on something like television."

Analysts have doubts about whether HotBot is using its resources wisely. Since the search and directory space already is oversaturated with a flurry of players resting on considerable financial resources, HotBot faces giants when trying to elbow its way into the market. Instead, analysts say that HotBot should cater to its strongest market--the digital savvy and research-oriented audiences--instead of to Internet newcomers.

"They're late to the game and doing a complete 180 to what they are," said Patrick Keane, an analyst at Jupiter Communications. "I think they are enticed by the potential gold at the end of the rainbow here."

Simons added that the service's functions, which are suited for advanced Internet users, have confused newer users, who care less about a query's specificity and more about convenience and simplicity.

"For the average person, people don't want to deal with [HotBot] because it's too much," said Simons. "They don't understand it, and they don't want to deal with that.

"It's like going out and selling high-end hobbyist audio equipment," he added. "Forget about the price, people can't deal with all the buttons."