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Online retailers tune in radio ads

Web merchants are increasingly turning to radio to build brand awareness for their sites.

Unlike Walgreens or GNC, doesn't have walk-in stores, nor does it have a catalog it can send to consumers' homes. What the vitamins and personal care products retailer does have is a Web site for all the world to shop, but creating an identity on the Internet has proven a difficult task.

"There are so many messages online it's impossible to break through the clutter," said Sharon Rice, vice president of marketing for, which has hired actress Blythe Danner to be its radio voice., online pharmacy and other sites seeking to create a new consumer brand on the Internet are increasingly turning to offline advertising, and particularly radio, to be taken seriously as an alternative to brick-and-mortar shopping.

According to Ken Cassar, a retail analyst at Jupiter Communications, as recently as a year ago most e-tailers were allocating 70 percent or 80 percent of their ad budgets to online campaigns. These days, they're more likely to devote at least half of the total to radio, print or TV, in part because the cost of running an ad banner hasn't fallen considerably, Cassar said.

"Radio is the one form that I consistently hear people talk positively about," said Cassar.

Advertising on radio, TV and in print makes more sense now because of greater consumer awareness about e-commerce, according to Mike Massaro of Goldberg Moser O'Neill, a San Francisco ad firm that counts, Dell and Cisco among its clients. Now it's a matter of building a brand offline that Internet shoppers will remember when they go online. "A lot of people look at or Dell and say, 'What's the difference?'" Massaro said. "The fact that they have a brand is the difference."

Television has the greatest reach, but a quality TV commercial can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce, far beyond the advertising budgets of most e-commerce start-ups. A radio spot, on the other hand, can cost as little as $10,000 and be targeted to a specific demographic group, unlike television. That's why is spending 60 percent of its $8 million offline advertising budget on radio alone. will beam Blythe Danner's voice to its target group of adults ages 35 to 54. Television doesn't allow for that kind of selectivity, according to Massaro.

But what Internet companies have found particularly valuable about the radio is the relationship between commuting and fast Net connections at work, which have made rush-hour spots highly sought after.

"There must be some connection when people are in their cars," said Charles Conn, CEO of Ticketmaster Online-CitySearch, which devotes a majority of its advertising to local efforts. "We're getting our biggest spikes in usage from radio advertising, not Web advertising."