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City to move web ads forward despite objection from constituents

(Oct. 25, 2013) The city appears poised to continue forward with a proposal to add advertising to ococean.com – the resort’s municipally sponsored tourism website – despite the increasingly adversarial relationship it stands to create with local industry groups.

Council Secretary and Tourism Commission Chair Mary Knight said in her report this week that the entire council should weigh in on the possibility, “even though the HMRA [the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association] and their board is not really in favor.”

“We’ve discussed it now for about three meetings [of the Tourism Commission], and I think it’s important that, even though one of the boards is not in favor, that the council has a discussion,” Knight said.

The idea to change the setup of ococean.com has been one of the more contentious topics in the commission, since it was suggested by business owners some months ago who said they would appreciate the ability to purchase advertising and more prominent listings on the page.

Currently, a $200 membership to the town’s Convention and Visitors’ Bureau gets hospitality businesses a listing on ococean.com’s categorized, searchable index. Those listings have since been improved, but the idea to charge extra for different tiers of expanded listings was staunchly opposed by the HMRA and the Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce over issues of fairness.

The philosophical question therein – whether the city should allow market competition to dictate the function of a taxpayer-funded website – remains essentially the same with regards to the idea to sell advertising on the site, which the city is apparently still pursuing.

“Our board was of the unanimous opinion that the website should be a service to the businesses, and should clearly and equally represent all businesses,” said HMRA Executive Director Susan Jones. “It shouldn’t be favoring one business over the other through advertising.”

Allowing the site’s space to be bought, the HMRA has maintained, will allow those with bigger budgets to monopolize a publicly funded venture that should represent all its constituents equally.

City Tourism Director Donna Abbott said this week that there “may be a misconception as to who can buy that advertising.”

“Given the cost, I don’t think many local merchants could buy those ads,” Abbott said. “I think the ads would be bought by a larger entity that would not be competing with our businesses.”

Under a proposal the commission requested from MGH Advertising – the marketing agency which maintains the city’s site – the town could likely put a single banner ad on the home page of ococean.com and four blocks of advertising on the interior pages.

Rates for the spaces would depend on how many ads were being rotated through a single space, but would average roughly $10 per 1,000 viewer impressions.

If a single buyer were to take the whole home page in a sponsorship arrangement, the city could likely charge up to $20,000 for the deal. The interior pages would net an estimated $74,000, with some fluctuation depending on if there was a single buyer or multiple.

However, Jones said that those prices would not necessarily be out of reach of the city’s larger hotels. At least one has said they could afford to buy up the site, but would not do so out of principle.

“I just think it would be responsible for us to have a further discussion,” Knight said, given the volume of concern over the proposal.

“They [MGH] have presented ways we can do it, if the council so desires.”

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