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Salon: Watch ad, read articles for free

The news and commentary Web site is allowing visitors to read articles they would otherwise have to pay for if they first watch a four-page Mercedes ad.

For some Web sites, online advertisements make for an atmosphere like a gaudy Las Vegas strip. For Salon.com, they are a new bargaining chip.

The news and commentary Web site is allowing visitors to read articles that otherwise would have to be paid for in exchange for watching a four-page commercial from Mercedes. If they interact with the ad, visitors get an all-day pass to Salon.com's premium content areas, for which subscribers usually pay about $6 monthly, or $30 annually.

The newest ads dovetail with the rise of subscription services on the Web because they present visitors, who are accustomed to getting content for free, with a choice.

"It's a way to balance advertising and the visitor's desire to read specific content," said Cheryl Lucanegro, senior vice president of sales for Salon Media Group, parent company of Salon.com. She said about 20 percent of the site's columns and feature articles are behind the subscription wall.

The ads are the latest wrinkle in ploys dreamed up by Web publishers to increase their numbers of paying visitors and to drum up business from tight-fisted marketers. Online publishers fighting to make ends meet have foisted many variations of new-fangled ads and subscription services on Web surfers since the dot-com fallout.

But balancing their own economic interests with consumers' interests hasn't been easy for online media companies. Pop-up ads, for example, caught on widely with mainstream sites for their ability to grab surfers' attention, but service providers such as America Online have pulled back on pop-ups somewhat in recent months after consumer outcry.

Salon, which introduced a paid version of its site last year and now has about 45,000 subscribers, sees the strategy as a winning proposition for advertisers and readers, as well as for itself. The San Francisco-based company, which recently celebrated its seventh anniversary, has struggled financially, as have other Web publishers, as the advertising market shriveled in recent years. In October, it secured a $200,000 loan to stay in business.

"It's good for Salon, because we showcase our premium content to more readers, and, hopefully, after seeing it they'll decide to subscribe. Everybody wins in this case," Lucanegro said.

The ads were created by Silicon Valley ad-delivery technology company Ultramercial, whose first customer is Salon. Dana Jones, the founder and president of Ranchos Palos Verdes, Calif.-based Ultramercial, said that he is in discussions with other Internet publishers looking to or already offering subscription services. He said that Web companies could even allow a free temporary pass to paid streaming audio and video in exchange for ad views.

"In a subscription model, you have 'X' number of people willing to pay, (and) an even larger number of viewers who would like to access the material, but won't pay. We are a bridge between free and fee," said Jones, who founded Ultramercial last year with his own funds.

For its part, Salon plans to add the free-pass option for readers permanently once it signs on more sponsors. The company set a limit on the current Mercedes campaign, which means that each person can only get three days of access to premium areas by viewing the ads. In the future, Salon aims to run several such campaigns at once, so that people could choose from or watch a number of ads--including, perhaps, interactive games or streaming video TV ads--in return for access to subscription content.

In sponsoring the current all-day pass, Mercedes is running what's known in the online media industry as a "surround session," in which its ads appear throughout any subscription article that a reader has requested. Lucanegro said such a campaign can cost anywhere between $25,000 to $100,000, depending on the advertiser's objectives, which could include gathering data on consumers.