By John Pellegrini

Websites—you love ‘em, you hate ‘em, and you can’t live without ‘em. Most of us radio prod geeks use the Internet in some form or another, either writing stuff for our respective stations' sites, or writing stuff for our own personal sites. Or, we just sit in our studios with the doors locked and look at porno sites. However, many of us have discovered that the Internet can be an invaluable research tool for commercial writing purposes.

Of course, there’s the obvious method of research, which is to access your prospective client’s site, and glean information off that for your commercial writing needs. This leads to interesting dialogues with these clients, such as when you tell them that they’ve forgotten to include some valuable information on their sites, namely, how to order the products and services they supposedly provide, or even including detailed descriptions of the products and services they provide. Yes, I’ve seen several sites from businesses that completely leave out any descriptions of what the company does, what kinds of services and products they provide, and how to go about ordering those products and services. I’ve even seen business Websites that don’t include phone numbers or locations for stores, and these are retail company sites! One Website, in particular, just had the company name and slogan—that was it; no product catalogs or descriptions, no information on where product info could be obtained, no links, no downloads, no phone numbers, no addresses, nothing. But they wanted to emphasize their Website in their spot. The owner had decided that this “Web site thing” was “something that the store ought to do,” but didn’t want to spend any money on it. He also had decided that he didn’t want any information about the store on the Web. His reason? “My competitors could steal my secrets!” Would that secret be that he’s clueless?

Another fun conversation can occur with clients, when it’s obvious that they haven’t updated their Website for a few years. Again, another client I worked with had this problem; they were still featuring the 1996 line-up of products on their Website, in 2000. Apparently, they contracted someone back in 1996 to create a Website for their company, and they never realized that the information would need to be updated. There are even some business Websites that tell you all about the owner of the company, and all about the city the company is located in, and even some employee profiles; but nothing about the products and services they offer. Makes you wonder just what exactly the business owner expects as far as results from Internet promotions?

All of these examples of Internet mistakes seem pretty obvious, yet all of the businesses that were involved in these mistakes were insisting that their radio spots direct people to their Websites. My first question to each of these clients was, “why?” Why direct people to a Website that doesn’t have anything on it that will bring your company new business?

One salesperson, who shall remain nameless, said to me, “who cares what the Website looks like? Our job is to get a lot of hits on it for the client.” My response was, “do you want the client on for a week or a year? If the client is on the air with us, and he’s not getting any results because people aren’t ordering off his Website, he’s going to blame us, unless you tell him about this problem BEFORE the commercials go on the air.” If I owned a business, and I found out that the station I advertised with knew about a mistake on my Website that could cause me to lose business, but the salesperson or station didn’t tell me about it until AFTER I’d been paying loads of money to advertise on their station, I wouldn’t trust that salesperson or that station ever again! Would you? However, if you tell a business owner BEFORE he runs spots directing people to his Website, that there are mistakes on the Website that could cost him in lost sales, chances are the business owner would thank you for it.

Mind you, I have no idea of how to create a Website. You could as well quote Homer in the original Greek as try to explain to me the language of Website building, and I would have just about as much interest. That being said, I still don’t understand how companies could ignore things that would seem to be an obvious necessity for doing business on the Web, such as products and service descriptions, ordering information, contact numbers, or even info on how to buy the stuff on the Web in the first place. But, miss them they do, and the last thing anyone wants is a commercial directing customers to a Website that won’t help them do business with the company.

This is why I always make it a point to browse through the Websites of our potential customers, especially those who I’m writing copy for and are expecting the radio audience to browse their Websites before any further contact with the business. No matter how big or small a company is, they can still have mistakes on their Websites that could cause them to lose sales. Not all businesses keep track of what’s on their Websites, and there are an alarming number of companies (especially small to mid sized companies) who don’t have a full-time Webmaster, or even anyone on staff who checks up on their Website. Instead, they hire an outside consultant to create a site for them, and who is supposed to keep it upgraded (but seldom does). I’ve found in many cases that business owners really appreciate it when one of us from the station lets them know if their Website has a problem, especially if they’re paying lots of money to a consultant who’s supposed to be doing this for them. Consider it part of YOUR customer service.

Another excellent area of research the Web can provide is in the realm of customer defense and espionage. If you’re under the impression that the company you’re writing a script for just seems to be repeating everything his or her competitor does, use the competitor’s Website as evidence. Or, use the competitor’s Website as a way of discerning weaknesses and strengths in your client’s approach. What is your client’s competition doing? Their Website is a great way to find out. Also, if your client is a retail store and they’re featuring certain products in their spots, you can get even more info on those products from the manufacturer’s Website. You could wind up with a better description of the product than the retail store has, which will help set the store’s commercial apart from the competitions’ spots featuring the same products. Many times, manufacturers have a different idea about product descriptions and marketing that the retail stores aren’t even aware of. Manufacturers sometimes even change slogans and logos entirely with some retail stores not finding out about it until weeks, sometimes months later. Websites are a great way to keep on track of the latest marketing ideas from the manufacturers.

I had an interesting situation happen when I received an order to write a spot for a surgical cure for varicose veins. The information I received from the doctor was mostly about how great the doctor thought he was, and how wonderful his facility was, but very little information on the surgical procedure itself. Now, I don’t know about you, but if I’m thinking about surgery, no matter how simple the procedure is, I still want to know what the risks are, and what’s involved. The doctor’s information had nothing about either procedure or risks at all.

So, I went to the Internet site for the Merck Manual, where you can download medical information for free. I looked up the chapter on varicose veins, read about what they are and that the surgery is relatively simple and considered outpatient with very little risk. I included 3 short lines of info about this in the script, as an assurance point about how good this doctor was at this procedure. The doctor called me and said he really liked the research I’d put into the script, and asked me if I’d studied medicine in school. He was impressed when I told him I’d gotten the info from the Merck Manual site, which is normally only used by healthcare practitioners. Naturally, he had a couple of corrections and additions to the research info I used, because each doctor always has his or her own methodology, but he was pleased with the idea that I included the stuff as an assurance point about his services, which he’d not thought of in his original concept. This is how we do our job of making the client look as good as possible. The Internet can definitely help with this purpose.

No matter what the subject of your commercial or promo is, there’s bound to be loads of information available on the Internet that you can tap into for embellishment or educational purposes. However, I can’t write an article about this subject without a word or two of caution regarding content copyright. You knew that was coming, didn’t you?

Remember, just like everything else, direct quotes, music clips, and sound effects on the Internet definitely have copyright laws attached to them. Just because someone put audio or text on the Internet, doesn’t mean you’re free to use it any way you see fit. The most recent example of this occurred during the Elian Gonzales saga. After the Holy Saturday raid, some jokesters from the Playboy Website took some photo images from the raid and other key events and mixed them with the “Whassup” soundtrack from the Budweiser commercials. Guess who threatened to sue? Not Bud, not the Gonzaleses, but the Associated Press! Yes, they owned all the photos used in that parody, and they threatened to sue because of the unauthorized use. That resulted in the Website being immediately shut down, but not before millions of downloaded copies went out. Right now, Congress is being lobbied by Website creators to crack down with tougher laws regarding Internet content copyright. They are also demanding that the laws allow these companies to track down and prosecute not only the people who illegally use the copyrighted materials, but also track down and prosecute anyone who forwards it or uses it further. It’s a sticky wicket when copyright laws start to overlap right to privacy laws, but I’m betting on the side that has the most money to lobby Congress to win the battle, and that won’t be you and me, Joe and Josie Average Internet User.

By the way, just because you can download an audio file or a sound clip off of someone’s Web page for free, it doesn’t mean you can use it in a promo or commercial for free. For example, let’s say you want a Three Stooges sound clip for a bar commercial. You find a Website that’s a fan page—meaning it’s not a licensed or authorized site—and it has the exact drop you want. You download it and use it. Guess, what? You can be sued. The fan page doesn’t have permission to have the sound clip, and anyone who also uses it doesn’t have permission. “What about Official Sites?” You can’t use anything off those sites either. Look at the fine print at the bottom of the site that specifically tells you that if you so much as attempt to re-use anything without permission, you’ll wind up in court. Also, many of these “Official Sites” are nothing of the sort, so be sure to check who is really behind the Website. I don’t even want to discuss the situation going on right now with Napster and Gnutella.

As long as we’re on the subject, although this has nothing to do with the Internet, I would like to detail something I was asked about the other day. I got a call from someone who works at a radio station, who’s sister television station runs Bugs Bunny cartoons. They were calling me to make sure that it was okay for the radio station to run drops from the Bugs Bunny cartoons that the TV station ran. I told them, no it wasn’t okay. They said,
“why not, we’re the same company?” I told them to check the TV station’s contract with Warner Brothers. There you’ll see that only the TV station can run the cartoons, and no one else can, even if it’s the same company. Plus the TV station only has permission to use the cartoons for broadcast. They have to seek extra permission to use any of the audio in any other fashion.

Copyright permission is normally only granted to the station that requests it, and even though that station might be part of a three, ten, or even a thirty station group, only the station that holds the authorization can use it, and any of the other signals have to get their own permission. “Borrowing an audio clip” from the sister station that has permission is expressly forbidden in virtually every copyright authorization contract. This includes production libraries and sound effects libraries (sometimes even in the case of buyouts). MAKE SURE YOU READ THE FINE PRINT BEFORE YOU GET IN TROUBLE!

There was a funny site called “Hamster Blast.” It was a parody of the “Hamster Dance” Website. For those of you who haven’t seen either, “Hamster Dance” is a cute, stupid site featuring a bunch of different cartoon hamsters dancing to a sped-up version of Roger Miller’s soundtrack to Disney’s Robin Hood cartoon. “Hamster Blast” has some of the same stuff, except that when you move your mouse over the characters, they explode from gunshots. Well, the woman who created “Hamster Dance” didn’t like that parody one little bit. So, she got hold of the guy who created “Hamster Blast” and threatened to sue him for using stuff from her site without permission…except that she had stolen everything on her site from other sources as well. In fact, she stole from Disney, Warner Brothers, Roger Miller’s estate, and several other cartoon sources. I don’t know if she’s managed to avoid prosecution yet, but she’s definitely skating on thin ice as far as copyright protection goes.

Okay, enough about copyright! The World Wide Wait (for those of you with slow modems) is an invaluable resource for advertising purposes. It is an invaluable source for information, espionage, and ideas. Just remember though, you’re supposed to re-write the stuff into your own language. Plagiarism is still a crime as far as the holders of the copyrights are concerned. Use the Internet wisely, young one, and the world is your oyster. I’ll take a pint of Guinness with mine. 

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