Visa U.S.A., MasterCard International, and American Express Co. are increasing their advertising and promotions over the World Wide Web.
More of their banner ads are appearing on popular Web sites. In some cases the card rivals are promoting electronic commerce through partnerships with merchants and by trying to reassure consumers about security.
As Internet usage grows and more shopping is done on-line, card marketing executives hope they are ensuring that their respective brands will be at least as strong in cyberspace.
Debra M. Coughlin, senior vice president of global advertising and marketing communications for MasterCard, likens Internet shopping to the adoption of automated teller machines.
"It's the three-time rule," she said. "Once consumers used ATMs three times they were hooked, and we should see the same on the Web."
Web site addresses on credit card applications have become almost as ubiquitous as toll-free numbers. Hyperlinks to the major card brands can be found all over the electronic landscape.
Branding experts say the work Visa and MasterCard are doing will pay off for their member banks.
The Internet "is definitely a viable avenue for new business," said Brannon M. Cashion, a consultant at Addison Whitney, a corporate identity consulting firm in Charlotte, N.C. "The companies that have secure pages and browsers-and can promote that security-will be the leaders in this next wave of financial services."
Industry executives expect that using credit cards on the Internet-to pay a bill or make a purchase-will be as commonplace as writing paper checks is today.
Mr. Cashion said companies are "taking proactive steps to leverage their brand over the multimedia waves."
American Express has leaped into the Internet with far more than static "brochureware" and on-line applications. The company allows cardholders to look up balances on the Internet and offers an on-line brokerage service.
A strong Web presence is just another link to consumers, said Molly Faust, an American Express spokeswoman. "We realize that more and more of our customers are using the Internet every day," she said.
Visa uses the Internet to showcase its sponsorships and corporate affiliations. As part of Visa's effort to link its brand to entertainment, dining, and travel, its advertising banners can connect Web surfers to Conde Nast's international restaurant guide and to weekly arts and entertainment listings from The New York Times.
"Our members' products have certain associations in the minds of consumers," said Elizabeth Silver, vice president of advertising, Visa U.S.A.
The banner ads are meant "to drive traffic to particularly rich areas of content," she said. Visa's home page also offers information for small- business and home-office customers.
Two Visa cards have recently been issued expressly for a Web audience. One is a cobranded card with Yahoo!, the Internet search company. The other, the NextCard, was developed by Internet Access Financial Corp. and is issued by Heritage Bank of Commerce in San Jose, Calif.
MasterCard does not have an equivalent product, but Ms. Coughlin emphasizes that "all our cards are fine to use" on the Web.
When it comes to Internet commerce, "it's more important to make people feel comfortable enough to pull out their MasterCard," she said.
MasterCard has been working to allay public concern about the safety of electronic commerce. The "Shop Smart" section of its Web site guides consumers to merchants who have earned a MasterCard seal of approval for security.
MasterCard hopes the Shop Smart program will increase its market share on the Web. To gauge progress, the association polls merchants to find out how many on-line MasterCard transactions they processed before and after enrolling in the program.
"If we are looking to be the preferred way to pay, naturally the best measure would be whether or not people are using us more," Ms. Coughlin said.
Visa, too, is focused on market research. It counts how many mouse clicks each banner ad receives and conducts "attitudinal tracking" to see how on-line consumers regard its brand.
Both MasterCard and Visa say they plan to step up Internet marketing further. One reason is the Net's attractive demographics.
People on the Internet are more affluent, better educated, "and might be more responsive (than average) to certain products and services," said Richard G. Barlow, president of Frequency Marketing Inc., Milford, Ohio.
On the other hand, Mr. Barlow said, more upscale customers might not be very profitable if they pay off their credit balances each month.
Industry observers said card companies should be prepared for a new set of problems. While the Internet is a cheap way to solicit new customers, the medium is already proving to be a magnet for applications that are fraudulent or are submitted by people with poor credit records.
With "virtually every Tom, Dick, and Harry able to inquire about the card or apply over the Internet," it is expensive for issuers to check credit histories, said Stanley W. Anderson, president of Anderson & Associates, Arvada, Colo.
One bank spokesman said approval rates are somewhat lower on the Internet because pretty much anyone can apply. But he said the cost per new account does not suffer, because customer acquisition costs are much lower.