What the Hecker? StarTribune.com tests new home page ads

On Monday, July 3, visitors to StarTribune.com found a home page partially given over to local auto tycoon Denny Hecker. Denny Hecker logos ran down both sides, and a video and audio ad (near bottom right) played automatically on the page.
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One week ago, StarTribune.com had a surprise for visitors to the front page.

"I had kind of let the page load in the background, and flipped over to something else," says Erica Mauter, a chemical engineer and blogger living in Minneapolis, who as one of those seeking the news that day. "All of a sudden I heard this blast of sound. And I flipped back over, like 'What was that?'"

It was this: "Auto manufacturers announce THE BIGGEST INCENTIVES OF THE YEAR! And here's Denny Hecker with more big news!"

As Mauter looked back at the page, she saw the usual white background of the Strib's home page filled on that Monday with Denny Hecker logos. In the middle of the page was a large, 30-second video ad from the ubiquitous Twin Cities' auto tycoon with an offer of free airline tickets: "You'll get the best deal -- then pack your bags, you're going on vacation!"

All of a sudden I heard this blast of sound. And I flipped back over, like 'What was that?'

"I was kind of blown away -- like, 'Wow, that's obnoxious,'" Mauter says. "I stopped the video and was so obsessed with the ad I totally forgot what I had gone there for in the first place."

Will Tacy, the editor of StarTribune.com, says the news and advertising sides of the paper had "a good bit" of discussion before the Denny Hecker experiment. He won't characterize the conversation much beyond that. Told of Mauter's reaction -- and subsequent failure to pursue the news item she had been seeking -- Tacy says, "Anything that creates a negative or non-productive audience experience is of concern."

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The newspaper has sold the background on the front page of its Web site, known as "wallpaper," six times over the past two months, to advertisers including Caribou Coffee and E85 ethanol. But this was the first time wallpaper had been paired with a video and audio ad. The result was a page that, to some, seemed dominated by Denny Hecker rather than the news of the day. By Tuesday morning, the site was back to normal.

Tacy stresses last Monday's front page is not standard practice. He says it's an example of how the industry is testing the boundaries of the new world of advertising. "We have to recognize that as our story-telling tools evolve, so do the tools available to advertisers," he says. "And we need to be willing and comfortable experimenting with that just as we would experiment with the storytelling abilities of the medium."

Tacy says along with reader feedback, the paper will use hard data to learn how -- and how much -- the Denny Hecker ad affected visitors. These include site statistics that can show whether readers, like Erica Mauter, were diverted from the news they came there to find.

Other numbers will show how good the experiment was for Denny Hecker. Last fall Hecker's Walden Automotive Group said it was transferring up to 20 percent of its ad budget to online spending. The company's president did not return repeated calls to discuss the StarTribune.com ad.

The Star Tribune declined to say how much Hecker paid for wallpaper and a video ad on the front page. At least one industry observer speculates the blitz might have been free or extremely cheap -- a trial-run of a new technique, done as a favor for a valuable advertiser.

Whether Hecker paid or not, it's not surprising to see a newspaper pushing the bounds of online advertising. The Star Tribune's parent company, McClatchy, saw overall retail advertising at its papers fall one percent in the most recently reported quarter. During the same period, online advertising revenues rose more than 30 percent. Advertising in general makes up the vast majority of newspaper revenue.

The Star Tribune's Roxanne Oswald is in charge of booking interactive ads for the paper's Web site. She says newspapers nationally are experimenting with so-called "rich media" ads that use audio and movement -- and may even block your view of the news for a few moments. "There's something on the screen that's going to move or shake, or somehow catch your attention," Oswald says. "We have a campaign running now for the Minnesota Zoo where a giraffe walks across your screen and eats some leaves. It's very brief, but it certainly gets more attention than a standard banner ad would."

Oswald says reaction to the Denny Hecker experiment -- from readers and advertisers -- will shape how StarTribune.com uses the techniques in the future.

For some visitors like Erica Mauter, the ad did lasting damage. "You like to think that the Star Tribune has some integrity," she says. "And I'm not saying that on account of selling out to Denny Hecker they don't exactly (have integrity). But just in terms of the level of respect I give to a Web site, it's very dependent on the look and feel as well as the content. And to sort of see it come off like a Yahoo page instead of CNN is just a little too much."

Others, like John Risdall, cheer the paper's chutzpa. Risdall is chairman of the Risdall Advertising Agency, which is well-known for its online and interactive work. "I would have been very proud of them that they're doing exactly what they're doing, and doing it up big," he says. "You know, why not go big? Why come halfway and just walk up and touch it? Why not run through the wall, and keep going, and trumpet the success all the way home?"

Success, especially in the news business, can be defined many ways. Like the rest of its industry, the Star Tribune will be working for some time yet to find the right balance between delivering the news and delivering for advertisers.