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Bringing search ads to file sharers

October 20, 2008 |  4:00 am

Jon_healey_logoWhat would happen if you introduced one of the most lucrative business models on the Internet -- search-related advertising -- to the file-sharing networks that power much of the Net's underground economy? We're about to find out. Today, Brand Asset Digital launches a public version of P2Pwords, a service that lets advertisers deliver keyword-triggered pitches through peer-to-peer networks.

As with Google's AdWords, P2Pwords enables advertisers to target promotional messages to users based on what they're looking for. Brand Asset Digital's task is trickier than Google's because it inserts those messages into the search results delivered by other companies' programs (e.g., LimeWire). It does so with techniques similar to the ones anti-piracy firms use to prevent people from downloading bootlegged songs, movies and games. Yet AdWords and P2Pwords share a simple but powerful concept: pitches are more likely to work if they're shown to people hunting for something like the product being advertised. The approach has been so effective for Google, AdWords has practically become a license to print money.

This conceptual similiarity won't necessarily vault Brand Asset Digital co-founders Tim Hogan and Joey Patuleia into Larry Page and Sergey Brin's tax bracket. Many advertisers have shunned the most popular file-sharing networks because, let's face it, people use them mainly to download bootlegged songs, videos and games. Also, Brand Asset Digital isn't trying to reach users of BitTorrent, one of the most popular file-sharing programs. Nevertheless, the opportunity presented by P2Pwords is so large, it may be hard for advertisers to resist -- particularly if they're promoting something designed for younger users. Just compare Web searches to the activity on file-sharing networks. According to comScore, Web search engines answer queries about 400 million times per day. Those searches generate more than $20 billion a year in advertising.  But by data security firm Tiversa's count, file-sharers search for content on p2p networks about 1.5 billion times daily. That's almost four times the volume of Web searches.

Patuleia argues that no matter how you feel about what people are doing on p2p networks, it makes no sense to ignore such an enormous, content-hungry audience.

"This is the most unleveraged, unbranded, unmarketed space in the history of the Internet," Patuleia said.

Besides, P2Pwords gives advertisers and content owners a way to divert file-sharers from illegal downloads to authorized ones. Brand Asset Digital strategy could be described as "legitimize, don't stigmatize." It reflects the company's roots -- the privately held firm was formed last year by the merger of two companies, Beyond Media and INTENT MediaWorks, that specialized in delivering licensed content and advertising to p2p users.

The merged company helps artists and other brands market themselves through file-sharing networks in two basic ways. It seeds p2p networks with songs, clips and other promotional materials that, when played, steer the consumer to online stores where they can purchase more items. More intriguing, it drives links to that content high into the search results to influence people as they're hunting for something else. In other words, Patuleia said, content becomes the new storefront, and "the search result is the new ad."

Vitaminwatershrunk

The potential reach is staggering. Each of those 1.5 billion daily searches on p2p networks leads to the display of at least one screen filled with search results. That screen includes 10 or more links. If only half of those are links delivered by P2Pwords, that's 7.5 billion chances a day for brands to make impressions on p2p users. Brand Asset Digital's goal is to turn search results into promotions that users want to download. But even if they don't click on the links, they'll still be reading them and absorbing the brand's message.

Here's how P2Pwords works. An advertiser (or content owner) agrees to pay a flat per-click fee for one or more keywords that are relevant to its brand. For example, Coca-Cola, which owns Vitaminwater, might buy the phrase "50 Cent" because the rapper is a pitchman for the nutrient-infused beverage. Then, whenever someone does a search on a p2p network that contains sponsored keyword(s), Brand Asset Digital's computers pepper the results page with links to downloadable content chosen by the advertiser. In Coca-Cola's case, it could be a Vitaminwater video that featured 50 Cent, or it could be a free song sponsored by Vitaminwater. The link's text would be a mini advertisement for the brand too.

This manipulation of search results is reminiscent of what a number of firms -- including SafeNet's MediaSentry and Kazaa partner Brilliant Digital -- have tried to do to deter p2p piracy. These firms typically flood a file-sharing network with spoofed files, making it harder for users to find what they're looking for. Similarly, Brand Asset Digital can fill the screen with sponsored links or merely scatter them among the top listings, depending on how aggressive the advertiser wants to be, Patuleia said. Unlike spoofs, however, the links would clearly identify the content being provided. Taking up the Coca-Cola example again, when a LimeWire user searched for 50 Cent's new single by typing "50 Cent Get Up" into the search box, the first 10 results might say, "Vitaminwater presents 50 Cent conducting the National Symphony." Although the user was trying to download a song, not a commercial, there's a chance he or she will click on the link anyway (trial users of P2Pwords had an average click-through rate of more than 4%,  the company said). That's because file sharers searching for "50 Cent" aren't looking just for his hits or the movies he's been in; according to Patuleia, they're curious and willing to download all sorts of content from the artists and companies they like. Simply put, the p2p networks are where millions of people go to find new things to consume, just as they might surf through TV channels or browse what's new on YouTube.

Vitaminwater was one of the early users of P2Pwords. So were General Motors, Henkel AG's Dial Corp. and a few dozen independent artists, Patuleia said. Major media companies may consider file-sharing networks toxic, but "brands are a lot more progressive in targeting users where the users are," he said. Besides, Google is hardly a pristine environment for advertisers loath to associate their brands with pirated content. Its search engine can churn up bootlegs too. The main difference between the two, Patuleia contended, is that Google powers a "browsing culture," and p2p caters to a "consuming culture."

Tim Hanlon, managing director of VivaKi Ventures (an arm of the advertising agency Publicis Groupe), said promoting products through p2p searches is a natural extension of what companies are already doing through Google, Yahoo and Microsoft's Live Search. "Any smart search strategy ... should also consider all other forms of search-related or search-oriented activity," he said. He also noted that many artists have more creative control over the business aspects of their careers than ever before, giving them an incentive to use promotional tools such as P2Pwords that their labels might not touch. "Traditional methods of promotion don't necessarily succeed against a new digital media landscape," Hanlon said. "It’s an era of transparency that we’re now in. That challenges sort of traditional conventions of marketing, and ironically benefits both consumer and artist, but clearly via different methods. And perhaps this is one of those different methods."

Then again, there might not be too wide a gap these days between artists and labels on p2p. After all, Brand Asset Digital is a strategic partner of Brand Asset Group, a joint venture between Warner Music Group and Chris Lighty's Violator Records/Management. The raison d'etre for Brand Asset Group is to generate more non-music-related revenue for artists such as 50 Cent through endorsement deals, corporate sponsorships and the like. And labels are eager to gain a piece of those revenues through so-called 360-degree deals with artists. Still, it's hard to imagine the major record labels supporting a legitimate use of LimeWire while they're suing its owners for copyright infringement.

A less sanguine view of P2Pwords came from Scott Wensman, director of media strategy and content for Interpublic Group's Emerging Media Lab. "It will be interesting to see if it takes off -- if it's adopted by the user base, or if they ignore it," said Wensman, whose lab has been eyeing file-sharing networks as new channels for media. From the advertisers' perspective, there remain "legacy issues surrounding the perception of p2p networks or tools," as Wensman delicately put it. There's also the control issue: once marketers put content on a file-sharing network, they can't control where it goes. That's why an approach like P2Pwords may be better suited to entertainment companies than other brands. Although it's worth evaluating, Wensman said, "my opinion is, it isn't going to be the perfect fit for every marketer to just jump into this space."

Vitaminwater photo courtesy of Glaceau website.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

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