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Marketing the medium

Alternately referred to as narrowcasting, community-casting, and direct or "niche" marketing, a new business model for Web publishing and profitability is emerging.

The approach is an amalgam of marketing models developed by other media. Newspapers, for example, have long targeted stories and advertising to readers in specific geographic areas as they began to migrate to the suburbs, a strategy known as "zoning." Radio stations continue to evolve into specific categories ranging from country-Western to AM talk shows. The television industry has been revolutionized by the mainstream popularity of cable stations divided along such lines as science, comedy, and sports.

Web publishers, marketing executives, and industry analysts believe that the Internet model will adopt the most effective strategies from these predecessors--and then take one giant hyperlink beyond, using interactivity and electronic commerce.

"The Web is an anthropologist's dream," said Bill Cleary, founder of CKS Partners, a consulting firm that specializes in Internet marketing. "You can aggregate by 'psychographic' interest, demographics, gender, sexual orientation. People who represent a small percentage of the population but still have large numbers make up these communities. It gives advertisers a wonderful way to reach customers."

In other words, companies don't have to spend millions of dollars for a billboard or a commercial seen by the whole world when they really just want to address a specific group of potential consumers. Some advertisers are so taken with the concept that they are hiring consultants whose sole purpose is to find related sites where they can peddle their wares, creating yet another online cottage industry of middleman services. Nike, for example, could pay a service to find Web sites, newsgroups, and chat lines devoted to sports that are looking for advertising revenue or corporate sponsorship.

The demographically oriented sites that fall under this category are as numerous as they are diverse. Among them are LatinoLink; NetNoir, geared toward African Americans; and SeniorNet, directed at "computer-using seniors."

The creation of such sites is inevitable because the Internet's greatest strength as an infinite font of information can also be its fatal flaw, at least from a business perspective. Mass marketing on the Web is "suicide," said Frank Maris of Teen-Net, which is directed at youths, as its name implies. "It's a turnoff to have to sift through all that stuff. You have to communicate one on one."

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