Going for Broke On the Super Bowl

Computer.com has a great name - and not much else.

So on Super Bowl Sunday, the upstart retailer of, well, computers, is laying down the biggest gamble of its short life. It's taking $3.2 million - more than half of the $6 million it just acquired infirst-round funding - and buying 90 seconds on ABC's television broadcast of the big game.

The idea, the company says, is to build a brand in one afternoon. And if betting its future on a football game seems crazy, that doesn't seem to bother CEO Mike Zapolin. "Our name is Computer.com; once you hear it, we're very difficult to forget," he asserts.

There may be a football game going on in the background, but Sunday's Super Bowl is all about dot-coms. Of more than 30 scheduled advertisers, more than half are dot-coms; compare that to the three that braved the gridiron last year. From Monster.com to DowJones.com, thesefirms are handing over millions for a 30-second chance to reach about 130 million Americans. Add in the pregame ads, and all the spillover - the blimps, giveaways and gimmicks on the periphery of the broadcast itself - and in one January afternoon, as much as $75 million will be spent in Internet marketing dollars.

The Super Bowl represents the crest of a deluge that's been spilling out of televisions and billboards for the past six months. However, it comes as signs emerge that the mass-market approach may not be working for online companies.

Beyond.com, for instance, spent $82 million last year on sales and marketing - including big, national ad buys - to position itself as an Internet software superstore; this month it jettisoned CEO Mark Breier and said it is remaking itself as a business-to-businessfirm. Plenty of other Net companies are moving away from the universal sales pitch strategy, and some have even pulled out of the big Bowl.

For others, the Super Bowl extravaganza is too much to resist. "Advertising in the Super Bowl is a way of saying, 'Hey, look! I'm playing with the big boys,' says Bill Croasdale, executive VP of Western Initiative Media, a Los Angeles agency that buys advertising for clients. "Peoplefind that prestige really appealing."

Indeed, a lot of people. The lineup of dot-com advertisers in the game includes neophytes like Computer.com as well as established players such as E-Trade. It also features repeat players like Monster.com and HotJobs.com. The unprecedented demand for space has boosted this year's average price of airtime to $2.2 million for an average 30-second spot, a 38 percent jump over Fox's average price last year.

It doesn't end there. A company usually pays an advertising agency to create its ads - tacking on another $500,000 or more. And if the ad works, companies need to prepare for the traffic spikes that crashed several sites last year.

"We spent $1.2 million on server equipment to prepare for Jan. 30," says Michael Budowski, CEO of OurBeginning.com, an invitation, stationery and announcement site. "Spending $4 million of our $15 million budget and then having our site go down was just not an option."

The Super Bowl's appeal is understandable. As one of the only TV events able to reach arguably half the nation, the game offers a unique billboard to the masses. And then there's the media coverage of the spectacle, with newspapers eager to chalk up the ad losers and winners.

That sort of arena compels some companies to try to stretch their 30 seconds of airtime into all-day events. Where HotJobs will hand out 45,000 foam hands during Super Bowl weekend in Atlanta, Microstrategy.com, a Vienna, Va.-based softwarefirm, is throwing a party for an expected 5,000 guests at FedEx Field, the Redskins' home stadium, outside Washington.

Nevertheless, that overexuberance comes just as the industry experts are saying that the Super Bowl and similar mass-exposure strategies don't necessarily deliver the niche audiences most dot-coms need. Netfirms spent as much as $1.5 billion in advertising in the fourth quarter of 1999, according to Jerry Arbittier, senior VP of researchfirm Competitive Media Reporting - an unprecedented attempt at exposure.

But the traffic didn't necessarily follow: ToySmart.com, for instance, spent $25 million in the fourth quarter, but it didn't even break Media Metrix's list of the top 25 e-commerce sites during the holiday season. KBkids.com only got up to No. 12, behind competitors eToys and Toysrus.com, despite having spent $43 million in fourth-quarter advertising.

"The results were disappointing for everything but the top sites," says Tom Handy of Media Edge, Young & Rubicam's media service unit. Since most startup Internet companies target specific audiences - brides-to-be for OurBeginning.com, for example - the Super Bowl, the most massive of mass markets, isn't likely to make much impact. "For most unknown companies, taking one shot in the Super Bowl is irresponsible," says Mike Windsor, president of Ogilvy Interactive Worldwide.

"If you were a Beer.com or a sports Web site, it might make sense to address that audience," says Catrina McAuliffe, senior VP and chief marketing officer at San Francisco's Goldberg Moser O'Neill, an ad agency that handles Audible.com, Fatbrain.com and Brodia.com. "But there's so much waste. Sure, a lot of people are watching. But a ton of people you don't want to reach are watching."

"I certainly wouldn't recommend any of my clients advertise in the Super Bowl," says McAuliffe. "The costs are astronomical and it's just too hard to justify.

There are more effective ways; a more targeted media is best."

Which may explain why some Internet companies have pulled out of ABC's lineup.

WorkSeek.com booked Super Bowl time in October; in December, it changed its mind. At least two other companies - Angeltips.com and Screaming Media - have pulled out as well. "There's a new dot-com born every day," says Steve Fu, CEO of Angeltips.com. "It's very difficult to choose the advertising vehicle that will break through all the clutter."

While some companies managed to get out in time, others playing in the Super Bowl ad game found themselves stuck. LifeMinders.com, an e-mail reminder service, bought $2.8 million of airtime in November, only to ask ABC for a way out weeks later. By Jan. 11, no one had offered to take the time, and the company realized it had to fill its 30 seconds with something.

"The ad is really bad," concedes Tim Hanlon, Lifeminders' VP of marketing. "I'm making T-shirts for the staff that say, 'We don't know how to make ads.'" Hanlon is hopeful that the ad - a simple flash of 43 words in 10 frames - makes the company come across as more concerned about its business than about making commercials. "Still," he says, "we could have saved a lot of money."

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