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Electronic Billboards on the Digital Superhighway

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               Electronic Billboards on the Digital Superhighway

                       A Report of the Working Group on 

                             Internet Advertising 

                   The Coalition for Networked Information 

                                March 18, 1994

     With somewhere between 8 million and 20 million users (figures are 
decidedly imprecise), the international information highway known as the 
Internet is Madison Avenue's dream: easy (and cheap!) access to a 
population that is literate (most information is in text form), moneyed 
(they have computers and the necessary communications accessories), 
intelligent (a large proportion are connected with  universities or 
research centers), and willing to reveal interests and desires by 
joining "lists" and "newsgroups" that reflect passions from operating 
systems to  social systems. 

     Yet the Internet, born out of a people-to-people effort that has 
its roots in barn raisings and volunteer fire departments, has 
traditionally been  anti-commercial. Even answers to questions posed on 
lists like "fatfree" or in  newsgroups like "" are often 
preceded or followed by messages that  proclaim the respondent's 
independence -commonly known as the "Standard  Disclaimer."

      Several people have mentioned the Standard Disclaimer
      (.e.g., "I have no  connection with this company whose
      products I am recommending") and described it  as a
      cultural tradition, and as a way of escaping criticism
      for advertising.  
      [From: [email protected] (Jon Schull)
       Date: Thu, 28 Oct 93 19:12:48 -0400]

     Other forces are now at work on the Internet, forces that do not 
come out of the volunteer tradition. They include:

   >> Commercial services that provide Internet access to those not 
      connected with higher education or research

   >> Businesses that provide commercial information via the Internet

   >> Those who are trying to sell products using this new way of gaining 
      access to potential customers

     Many Internet users are concerned about those new forces on the 
Internet. Some have proposed banning advertising completely. Others have 
proposed limiting or controlling advertising. Still others argue that 
the free-speech rights that make possible much Internet discussion and 
activities are inimical to a prohibition on advertising.

     In the course of a one-month on-line discussion of advertising on 
the Internet, sponsored by the Coalition for Networked Information (from 
which all the quotes in this paper come), the consensus seemed to be 
that some guidelines are important for Internet advertising, but that 
they should be just guidelines, and not requirements. Few were willing 
to take on the job of censor.

      "...we all have to realize that we are in the dirty
      business of defining what acceptable free speech is
      on the Internet. While we are not necessarily going
      to ban certain forms of free speech, we are
      certainly looking to control it. So far the only
      criterion or definition of what we are going to
      control seems to be if it involves the crime of
      someone making money off of it.
      [From: Bob <[email protected]>
       Date: Thu, 28 Oct 93 01:47:37 -0400]

     More important was the growing conviction among participants that 
advertising is as important an information source as many other 
electronic publications on the Internet, and that advertising serves the 
needs of Internetters as well as advertisers. 

     People want information about the products and services they buy; 
they want to make intelligent choices based on solid information. They 
want to know as much as they can about these products and services, and 
they want that information quickly and easily when they need it.

     That means a change for advertisers. Today's advertising tends not 
to be information rich. The goal of print-based advertising, or 
television or radio advertising, is to catch the attention of the 
potential customer and leave a simple message that can be translated 
into "buy me" when the time is appropriate. The cost of delivering a lot 
of information to people who may not want ANY information is too high in 
current mass media. The densest information -- the cautions, warnings, 
and considerations that accompany advertisements for drugs in magazines 
and newspapers -- is presented only because federal law requires it. 
Pharmaceutical manufacturers know that only a tiny fraction of the 
people who notice their ads read that small type. If they did not HAVE 
to provide that information, they probably wouldn't.

     However, advertisers are delighted to provide detailed information 
for the potential customer who seeks it. That is why so many 
advertisements encourage people to call 800 numbers or write for more 
information. People who are interested in detailed information about a 
product or service are people who are thinking about buying.

     The advantage of advertising on the Internet is that the ability to 
provide "layers" of information, giving netters a choice of how much 
information to get on a product or service. The information is available 
immediately (unlike products for which people must write), and can be as 
current as the advertiser chooses to make it (unlike brochures that may 
be out of date by the time they are printed).

     For both advertisers and Internetters, this emphasis on 
information, controlled by the reader, changes the nature of 
advertising. As Tim O'Reilly writes on GNN:

      "...what information a customer retrieves is
      entirely under his or her control. We firmly
      believe that people on the Net are interested
      in solid, detailed information about commercial
      products. They don't want unsolicited
      advertising, but they do want to be able to
      retrieve information that they are looking for
      -- and that includes commercial information as
      well as free information.

     For many years the debate centered on whether advertising should be 
allowed on the Internet. The Internet, originally supported almost 
entirely by federal funds, had rules about commercial participation that 
could be summed up in two words: not allowed.

     In recent years, however, the nets that make up the Internet have 
expanded, to include some strictly commercial cables and some nets that 
are very comfortable selling access to businesses both for their own use 
and to reach individuals on the Internet. Some of those businesses began 
to advertise. Some of the advertising was effective, some just created 
hostility. Now advertisers are beginning to ask: What works? What is the 
"right" way to advertise on the Internet? (This is a question of 
efficacy, not of morals.)

     As an advertising presence has grown on the Internet, the goal for 
many participants in the CNI discussion was to figure out HOW a business 
might advertise, not to decide WHETHER to allow advertising.

     And in general the conclusion most people reached was that 
advertising on the Internet has to satisfy two prime rules:

   1.  It should be passive, rather than active, allowing the Internetter 
       to come to the advertiser rather than having the advertiser foist 
       his or her message on the Internetter.

   2.  It should offer solid information rather than hyperbole, letting 
       the Internetter unfold more and more details about products and 
       services as the need for information grows.

     Madison Avenue has an opportunity to create a new form of 
advertising, one that is almost as good as sending a salesperson to each 
prospect's house, to sit at the dining-room table and answer questions, 
give demonstrations, and make sure that this potential customer is sold.

     That new form of advertising is being invented even as we write 
this, by those who are trying different forms of Internet advertising 
and identifying what  works.


     Internet advertising today falls into six categories:

   o  Endorsements -- Recommendations from users

   o  Billboards -- Postings on cognate lists or newsgroups

   o  Yellow Pages -- Searchable data bases of information from advertisers

   o  Penny Shoppers -- Product-focused or service-focused electronic lists 
      or e-mail subscriptions

   o  Newspapers -- Advertising that underwrites editorial content

   o  Junk Mail -- Direct (and unsolicited) to your mailbox


     Cher does not yet recommend her health club on the Internet, but 
many others tell of their experiences with products and services -- both 
positive and negative. As one participant on a list said:

      There are a number of books and articles around which
      describe this kind of  marketing approach. The most
      accessible one I've found is "The One to One Future"
      by Peppers and Rogers. (Sorry for that blatantly
      commercial message.  Here's the standard disclaimer:
      I have nothing whatsoever to gain from the sale of the
      book. :-).
      [From: [email protected] (Brian Smithson)
       Date: Thu, 28 Oct 93 00:22:21 -0400]

     Endorsements might be exempted from the "advertising" category, 
because they often come in the context of a question answered ("Does 
anyone know where I can get...") or an experience shared ("My service 
provider offers..."). Even when the endorsement comes from someone who 
works for the company, the promotion is accepted when it is not 
blatantly commercial and is a reasonable answer to a question posed by 
someone else. 

     Endorsements also are among the most effective advertisements on 
the Internet, because they are offered publicly in an interactive 
medium.  Anyone who disagrees can post her own opinions, and such 
debates often form the best -and most unbiased -- analyses of products 
and services. Advertisers whose products and services are discussed 
positively by others gain customers and loyalty. And when an advertiser 
participates in the debate, the power of the Internet really comes 
through. Advertisers whose products are panned can learn first hand 
about customers' problems -- and solve them and let others know that 
those problems have been solved.


        Billboards are the signs on the road that tell about services on 
or near the road -- in this case the Internet equivalents of hotels and 
motels, tourist attractions, restaurants, and gas stations. They are 
most acceptable when they appear in context, most reviled when they are 
scattershot attempts to find audiences in unlikely spots.

     A billboard might be a press release or product announcement on a 
list or newsgroup devoted to a related topic. For instance, a list 
devoted to public-access library catalogs might accept a posting from a 
company that helps institutions computerize their card catalogs.

     Some lists tend to get more billboards than others. On com-priv, 
where participants discuss the commercialization and privatization of 
the Internet, related advertising is viewed with equanimity:

      To: [email protected] 
      Subject: Re: Internet Business Report and Internet 
      Letter Date: Mon, 15 Nov 93 23:27:22 EST

      Attention Subscribers of Internet Business Report
      or Internet Letter

      Flushed with their continued international success,
      the publishers of THE INTERNET BUSINESS JOURNAL are
      presently offering you a free three month trial
      subscription to THE INTERNET BUSINESS JOURNAL.
      THE INTERNET BUSINESS JOURNAL's premiere issue in
      June 1993 attracted the attention of sources such as
      Business Week, Fortune, Wired, The Globe and Mail,
      and since then continues to set the standard for
      reporting on Internet business opportunities and

      The editor of THE INTERNET BUSINESS JOURNAL, Michael
      Strangelove, explains the reasoning behind this bold
      free offer, "We have a product that is guaranteed to
      be simply the best, and therefore dare to invite
      comparison. When it comes to price, focus, content,
      and quality, we continue to set the standard. Success
      is always imitated, but why should you settle for
      smaller, more expensive products?

      Subscribers may take advantage of this offer by
      sending proof of subscription to THE INTERNET
      BUSINESS JOURNAL, Subscription Manager, 208-A
      Somerset Street East, Ottawa, Ontario, CANADA
      K1N 6V2. (Tel: 613-747-6106 / FAX: 613-564-6641).

        Commercial Opportunities in the Networking Age
        Published by Strangelove Internet Enterprises Inc.
        Purveyors of Fine Internet Publications
        [email protected]
       [From: [email protected] (Strangelove Press)
       Date: Mon. 15 Nov 93 23:27:22 EST]

     Alt-wedding, a Usenet discussion group important to those who are  
planning weddings, is not comfortable with advertising, and participants 
gently make their feelings known when advertisers invade their space:

      From: [email protected] (Teisa Brown)
      Subject: Wedding Coordinator
      Date: 6 Jan 94 19:46:06 GMT
      Organization: IRHE
      Lines: 25

      Hello Everyone:

      I am so happy that so many are going to be married
      soon. Wedded Bliss! 

      Nothing like it.

      My name is Teisa Brown and I live in Philadelphia,
      Pennsylvania. I wanted to let you all know that I
      am a professional wedding coordinator and would be
      happy to extend my services to you. I can work with
      you even if you do not live the Philadelphia area.
      I specialize in wedding budgets $5,000 and under.

      I can reached via e-mail or phone at ....
      during the day. Should you want additional
      information, please do not hesitate to contact me.
      My mailing address is as follows:
      ....[name and address deleted]...

      Look forward to hearing from you soon.

  * * * 

      From: [email protected] (Teisa Brown)
      Subject: APOLOGIES FOR AD
      Date: Mon, 10 Jan 1994 10:00:39 -0500
      Organization: IRHE
      Lines: 8

      In response to the ad I placed about a wedding
      coordinator, I want to apologize for sending my ad
      through this forum. I have offended a few and they
      have let me  know.

      Never again will I make that mistake.

      Teisa Brown
      University of Pennsylvania

     The participants in, who are more interested in the 
flames of passion than in flaming, probably treated Ms. Brown gently. 
Billboards for products unrelated to the subject under discussion on 
lists and newsgroups may very well engender unprintable words and 
threats -- the practice known as "flaming." 

     But where such advertising is allowed, it is often most welcome, 
because the participants in these lists and newsgroups have joined to 
get the kind of information advertisers can provide.

     For advertisers, billboards on lists and newsgroups that allow it 
are opportunities to reach people who have already expressed an interest 
in the kinds of products and services offered. These people are, in 
marketing terms, "pre-qualified": they care about these products and 


     Participants in the CNI discussion were most enthusiastic about the 
Yellow Pages approach, in which advertisements from a variety of sources 
are collected into a searchable data base. They felt that a Yellow Pages 
service fits most comfortably into the Internet culture -- and takes 
best advantage of the tools developed for the Internet. Searching and 
presentation tools like Gopher, Archie, WAIS, and lately Mosaic make 
organizing and delivering advertisers' information relatively easy, and 
allow Internetters to find that information relatively painlessly.

      Gopher is currently the most useful and friendly of the
      net-searching protocols. A Gopher "burrow" containing a
      wide selection of products and services, including
      options for requesting updated information and
      containing levels of background information on the
      product's features and the company's history, maybe even
      offering graphics files, would allow Internet users to
      "shop", as in the Yellow  Pages, and browse and compare
      [From: [email protected] (Cliff Figallo)
       Date: Tue, 26 Oct 93 11:25:00 -0400]

     On the other hand, the Yellow Pages works only when someone is 
looking for information, and not when advertisers are trying to interest 
people who may never have heard of their company or their product. In 
addition, the Yellow Pages service itself must be advertised heavily in 
order to get Internetters to use it, which leads to "intrusive" 
advertising being used to trumpet the availability of "non-intrusive" 

      ...let's admit that non-intrusive advertising is almost
      an oxymoron. The  word "advertising" comes from the
      Latin word meaning "call attention to," and to call
      someone's attention to something you have to intrude on
      that person's attention. And so, if you have a new
      product (or whole new type of product, which doesn't
      even fit into existing yellow pages categories!), you
      will certainly need to "intrude" -- i.e., to ADVERTISE.
      You will also need to intrude on people's consciousness
      if you have a new cause, a new politician (talk about
      oxymorons!), a new idea, etc. 
      [From: [email protected] (John Gehl)
       Date: Wed, 13 Oct 93 18:52:37 -0400]

     Advertisers like having their product and service information in an 
expected spot. It means that those who go out looking for such 
information have an easy time finding it. But Yellow Pages advertising 
lacks the serendipitous quality of advertisements designed to entice 
readers who may not at that moment be actively seeking information about 
a product or service.


     Penny Shoppers are the four-page to 20-page tabloid-size 
agglomerations of classified and display ads that are left in the handle 
of front doors around the country. They contain nothing but advertising, 
mostly from mom-and-pop pizzerias, dry cleaners, and full-service gas 
stations in the neighborhood. They are a low-tech version of the coupon 
packages that are becoming popular in upscale areas.

     The Internet has its own version of Penny Shoppers, the 
"" newsgroups that seem to be attached to major metropolitan 
areas, and the lists sponsored by purveyors of products -- often 
computers and software -- that include as many new product announcements 
as answers to users' queries. Those who subscribe to such newsgroups and 
lists know what they are getting, just as Penny Shopper readers 
recognize their blatantly commercial nature. But sometimes people really 
want to know what is for sale and on sale. That's valuable information.

     As a result, the proliferation of product-focused or sale-focused 
lists  and newsgroups continues. It's effective advertising because the 
customer chooses  it.

      I note that Sun has a press release mailing list
      (sunflash) which many people *voluntarily* subscribe
      to. In fact, some people archive it!
      [From: Christopher Davis <[email protected]>
       Date: Mon, 22 Feb 1993 17:27:12 -0500]

     The Sun list is run by Sun and limited to Sun products. Other 
newsgroups and lists modeled after Penny Shoppers may be open to anyone, 
and many have advertised and sold everything from computer chips to 
houses on the Internet. Note all the different newsgroups the following 
ad appeared on:

      From: [email protected] (That's Mr. Death)
      Subject: SIMM MEMORY - 4, 4Mb 30 pin for SALE
      Date: 9 Nov 93 12:45:09 GMT
      Sender: [email protected]
      Followup-To: [email protected]
      Organization: New Mexico Tech
      Lines: 9

      I have 4, 4Mb 30 pin SIMMS for sale. 1 * 8 I believe.
      They work great in NeXTStations and NeXT Cubes, and in
      most (if not all) Mac's.  Not sure about what else uses

      Best offer takes them. I may sell them 1 at a time as
      long as I sell all four.  Hey - make me an offer, you
      may get a great deal...

      [email protected]

     From the advertiser's point of view, these lists and newsgroups 
are golden. People who use them are not only "pre-qualified" because 
they are interested in the subject, they actually are actively seeking 
the products being offered. As Rob Raisch, president of the Internet 
Company, said in Mary Cronin's recent book: "On the Internet the 
customers come to you." 
[Doing Business on the Internet, by Mary J. Cronin, Van Nostrand 
Reinhold, 1994. Page 129.]


     In the newspaper model, advertising underwrites editorial copy. The 
cost of collecting, organizing, and disseminating the information is 
passed on to the advertisers in return for giving them space to reach 
the people who want that editorial material.  Newspapers receive some 80 
per cent of their income from advertisers; subscriptions and newsstand 
sales make up the rest.

     On the Internet, advertising can underwrite the provision of 
valuable information in a similar way, making it possible for 
Internetters to see articles  or use resources that otherwise might be 
out of their price range -- or might not be offered on the Internet at 
all because of the information-owner's fear of  wholesale copying.

     For information providers, the newspaper model means that costs are  
covered up front. For advertisers, it means that people who might not 
otherwise find out about products and services have been drawn in by the 
lure of free or low-cost information. For Internetters, the opportunity 
to get access to certain resources at little or no cost makes up for the 
advertising that must accompany it.

     And often the advertising itself is a lure, as it is with ACADEME 
THIS  WEEK, the Internet glimpse at the information in The Chronicle of 
Higher Education.


                 Internet Gopher Client [v1.12]

          ACADEME THIS WEEK: The Chronicle of Higher Education

      2. INTERNET ALERT: a new hacker attack/
      3. INFORMATION from the February 9 Chronicle: a Guide/
      4. EVENTS IN ACADEME: February 8 to February 21/
      5. BEST-SELLING BOOKS on campuses.
      6. ALMANAC: facts and figures on U.S. higher education.
    ->7. JOB OPENINGS in Academe from the February 9 Chronicle/
      8. ABOUT THE CHRONICLE: subscriptions, advertising, copyright.
      9. ABOUT "ACADEME THIS WEEK": search tips and more/ 

                 Internet Gopher Client [v1.12]

          JOB OPENINGS in Academe from the February 9 Chronicle

    ->1. SEARCH using The Chronicle's list of job titles/
      2. SEARCH using any word or words of your choosing/


      [ACADEME THIS WEEK, from The Chronicle of Higher Education., Gopher port 70; or look under All the Gopher 
      Servers in the World.]

     The Chronicle of Higher Education's Gopher, ACADEME THIS WEEK, has 
been  available on the Internet since April, 1993, and has posted 
between 700 and 1,200 job ads each week -- without a single complaint 
from Internet users. (When there is a comment, it is most typically 


     The issue of advertising on the Internet is really an issue of 
"junk e-mail," an electronic version of the tons of paper sent to the 
eponymous "resident." A mailbox full of promotions one neither chooses 
nor wants engenders fear and loathing in the hearts of Internetters, and 
leads to the most vicious flaming.

     While the very openness of the Internet makes it possible to flood 
e-mail addresses with electronic flyers, the culture of the Internet 
stands squarely against it. Internetters see themselves as part of a 
great experiment, all sharing their knowledge freely without imposing on 
their fellow netters.

     And for some Internetters, junk mail creates an unwanted expense as 
well as an annoyance. Some people pay usage fees based on time on line, 
or storage charges for mailboxes. Those people really are paying to 
receive mail they do not want. Even the Post Office charges the mailer, 
not the recipient, for direct mail.

     Even so, some advertisers will try sending junk mail to lists of e-
mail addresses gained openly or covertly. These advertisers believe that 
even if most of the recipients throw away the message (and hate the 
advertiser), those few Internetters who are  induced to buy will more 
than make up for papering the net with unwanted mail.

      Surprisingly to some, junk mail had its defenders in the 

      If advertising is to be available over the net,
      either you must reach out for it or it must come
      to you unrequested. The former is a possibility
      for established products, but new products must
      necessarily reach out to you.

      I see only three ways that this can be done. There
      could be a registry where you indicate the types
      of products you wish to hear about; there could be
      commercially sold name lists that have much the
      same effect; or each company could reach out to
      individuals as best it can, respecting any
      personal objections to such advertising.

      The clearinghouse model doesn't exist yet, although
      it's a good idea. (Incidentally, the clearing house
      for direct-mail advertising reports that four
      times as many people ask for _more_ advertising as
      ask for less.)

      The brokered lists also do not exist yet,
      although they are also a good idea. A few
      email lists may be available from professional
      societies, but I would guess that such use is
      severely restricted.

      So, there really is no choice but for
      low-margin companies to send you unsolicited
      advertising. As they do so, they are to be
      commended if they keep the messages short (with
      more details on request), infrequent (but often
      enough to help you if you need the product),
      and customized in whatever way you request.
      Announcements in mass-distribution lists should
      be especially infrequent since they can't be
      customized. (I would favor having a moderator
      screen the ads.)  Ads to individuals are better
      as long as the company keeps track of any
      requests that you make -- e.g., to be removed
      entirely, or not to have your name sold.  This
      is called "relationship marketing," and is
      often quite popular with the customers. It
      hasn't been feasible at the national level
      until just recently, but it is certainly
      feasible on the net.
      [From: Ken Laws <[email protected]>
       Date: Sun 21 Feb 93 15:17:44-PST]


     The Internet is too good a market: There are too many people using 
it,  with too many "interest" groups, for advertisers to stay away. With 
the pressure for advertising comes a need for guidelines if the Internet 
culture is to be maintained.

     These guidelines can be created, and they will be welcomed by 
advertisers and users alike.

     Here are our suggestions for guidelines for Internet advertising:

1. Provide information.

2. Don't impose.

     Simple. Easy to remember. Effective.

     Like good advertising.