How much does an eyeball cost?

The question is increasingly relevant to banking as more financial institutions strike deals with Internet gateway sites, or portals. Hoping to attract the attention of some of the millions of eyeballs that regularly latch onto such sites, banking companies are paying millions.

Last month Bank One Corp. said it will pay up to $125 million to get on excite.com. The Excite Inc. portal is No. 6 among Web sites in popularity, with more than 15.8 million visits a month, according to Media Metrix Inc., a New York-based Internet research firm.

If Bank One pays Excite the full $125 million, those eyeballs could cost $3.95 each. That's $7.90 a person.

Merrill Lynch & Co. did not reveal how highly it values eyeballs when it became a provider of financial services on Microsoft Corp.'s MoneyCentral Web site. It did not disclose the financial terms of that deal, which was announced a week before Bank One's. Microsoft.com, which houses the MoneyCentral site, has 22 million monthly visitors, according to Media Metrix.

Citibank was the first bank to try to put a price on eyeballs. In August it signed up to become the "anchor tenant" on the personal finance segment of Netscape Communications Corp.'s NetCenter site, which has 20.8 million monthly visitors.

The Citigroup unit did not reveal the cost of the multiyear agreement. But with Netscape's acquisition last month by America Online adding another 28.2 million monthly customers, Citibank's price-per-eyeball has no doubt plummeted.

The difficulty of pricing eyeballs is reflected in the "pay for performance" clauses of both the Citibank and Bank One deals. Bank One's agreement, for example, "will only be worth $125 million to Excite if it meets performance criteria," including helping Bank One acquire new customers and make product sales, said Kenneth T. Stevens, chairman of Bank One's retail group.

Excite is guaranteed to earn a minimum of $8 million in the first year, the company said. "Instead of betting things will happen, it's incentive to work together," Mr. Stevens said.

The spending controls are a new wrinkle compared with more straightforward deals struck between AOL and four discount brokerages this summer. DLJ Direct, E-Trade, Waterhouse Securities, and Ameritrade are each paying AOL $25 million over two years to serve as the "premier brokerages," offering on-line trading services on AOL's personal finance channel, which has five million regular users.

Observers do not dispute the value of aligning with Internet portals, but confirmed the difficulty of assessing it. "It's a reasonable approach, depending on the terms and conditions of the agreement," said Michael A. DeVico, executive vice president of BankAmerica's interactive banking division. "You really have to get into how much you're paying, over what time, what level of exclusivity there is, and the advantages your partner would bring."

Edgar D. Brown, senior vice president at First Union Corp., said a deal's worth "depends very much" on how the portal is utilized. Interactive content, for example, can be very powerful, especially compared with banner ads, which consumers tend to ignore, he said. But translating such content "into sales is an evaluation that has not yet been concluded," he said.

Fleet Financial Group has executed "a lot of small portal deals," said Blaise Heltai, executive vice president and director of on-line financial services. The bank has driven "a very serious amount of traffic" from alliances with local Internet addresses, such as the Boston Globe Web site.

"The question," he said, "is which of the national portals will be worth the money being spent?"

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