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Ocean City

Pay-to-play listings out, but ads still possible for city tourism site

(Oct. 18, 2013) Although the idea of charging extra for upgraded listings on ococean.com appears to be dead in the water, the city is still looking into the prospect of selling advertising on its municipal tourism Website.

But the philosophical question therein – whether the city should allow market competition to dictate the use of a taxpayer-funded Web site – remains essentially the same.

“In terms of having people pay for space, not everyone will be equal,” said Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association Executive Director Susan Jones. “Which I think presents a problem when you’re talking about something that’s publicly-funded.”

At a previous meeting of the city’s Tourism Commission, the idea had been floated to expand ococean.com – Ocean City’s official tourism Web site – by selling ad space as well as expanded listings.

Currently, a $200 membership to the town’s Convention and Visitors’ Bureau (CVB) gets hospitality businesses a listing on ococean.com’s categorized, searchable index. The listing features a limited number of photos, text, and links to go directly to the businesses’ website. But some businesses have expressed interest in more comprehensive listings with additional features, and would be willing to pay for them.

Subsequently, the commission asked that a survey be sent around to the HMRA, CVB, and the Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce to gauge interest in the prospect, which apparently garnered a strong negative reaction from the groups due to fairness issues.

“Their respective boards were really not in favor of it,” reported Tourism Director Donna Abbott at last week’s Tourism Commission meeting.

Instead, listings on ococean.com will be expanded and have additional features  – such as photo galleries, multiple special deal tabs with links, and expanded amenities sections – but will remain at a single flat rate for all CVB members.

However, the city still has an apparent desire to sell ad space on ococean.com. Under a proposal which the commission requested from MGH Advertising – the marketing agency that 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 homepage in a sponsorship deal, 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.

“There are a substantially larger number of views on the interior pages, just the way the site is set up,” said Alison Fiorelli of MGH.

“The few places we could have [the ads] are not overly cluttered,” said MGH President Andy Malis. “Most of the stuff up there that are our own promotions look like ads as well.”

However, while MGH buys plenty of advertising on the city’s behalf, it is not in the business of selling.

“You’d have to figure out how to sell these things if that’s what you want to do,” Malis said.

But the fundamental issue with selling ads, Jones noted, remained the same as with the expanded listings. Those with more money would be able to pay for a greater presence on the site, which would be fine if the city was a private business. But as a publicly-funded entity, it should be representing all of its constituents equally.

“Do we allow the smaller guys to continue to be trampled, or do we provide at least one level playing field for them?” Jones posited.

“Some of the small guys might not want to advertise, and that’s up to them,” said Todd Ferrante of Park Place Jewelers, who had initially suggested the expanded listings. “But I don’t think it’s an unfair competition.”

One way to eliminate this conflict, Malis suggested, would be to sell the ad space in conjunction with sponsorships of town-sanctioned events, and not to just anyone with the money to do so.

“It’s not really my purview, but if you want some limit as to who gets the exposure, that would be a way to do it,” Malis said. “Plus, if you combine it with something else you’re already doing, you wouldn’t have to hire a separate salesperson to sell the Website.”

“I think the theory is what we need feedback on,” Abbott agreed. “Then we can come back and look at price.”

Under Maryland law, the city is barred for developing any kind of regulatory scheme where constituents are charged more for a government service than the service costs the government – unless that service is a separate proprietary function that sustains itself, such as water service.

“If we raised money with it, it would have to go back into our marketing dollars to continue to cover tourism costs,” said Mayor Rick Meehan.

Despite the objections of the city’s business associations to the plan for paid listings, Meehan – who had previously supported the idea – was still skeptical.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel here,” he said, noting that that the Chamber itself charges an extra $50 for premium memberships with a more prominent spot in its directory.

“I pay the extra $50, because it’s certainly worth it,” Meehan said.

 

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