When the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) wanted to track down over 1000 missing New Zealanders following the terrorist attack in Bali, it placed an ad on XtraMSN's Hotmail homepage and was astonished by the results.
MFAT spokesman Brad Tattersfield says that in the hours after the Bali blast the ministry received hundreds of calls from people wanting to find friends and family who may have been in the region.
"It became clear as we began to narrow down our list, which was over 1000 people, that we needed some help."
The list consisted mostly of ex-patriot Kiwis and travellers who may have been in Bali at the time of the bombing.
"They were people we couldn't easily get access to through the New Zealand media. We figured the best way to contact them would be to post messages on websites that are regularly viewed by New Zealanders overseas."
MFAT approached a number of news sites that are popular among travelling Kiwis and was pleased to see Stuff, Nzoom, XtraMSN and Lonely Planet all respond quickly. XtraMSN went one step further than simply advertising on its site, says spokesman Matt Bostwick, and suggested putting an ad on its Hotmail page.
"We put a message on the Hotmail log-in page and a cube on XtraMSN's homepage that only showed up for visitors to the site from outside New Zealand," says Bostwick.
Hotmail is popular among travellers who often set up email addresses simply for the duration of their trip.
Traffic through the site was huge over the first two days of the campaign, says MFAT's website manager, Amanda Crutchley.
"We saw 460,971 page impressions in the first 48 hours with nearly 500 people clicking through to the ad."
MFAT's head of information Ian Kennedy says the ad campaign was so successful MFAT will be formalising the process for any future emergency.
"If there is a next time we would hope to start this process a lot earlier in the piece. We would have the procedures in place rather than doing everything on the spur of the moment as we thought of it, like this time."
MFAT has now closed the call centre it set up to manage information flow for the crisis and has handed over its list of remaining unaccounted for Kiwis to the police - the list now numbers 27.
"It's hard to know how many came to us directly off the information on the website but it's certainly something we would do again if we needed to."
Bostwick says the exercise has proven how useful the web is in reaching a targeted audience.
"Traditional media couldn't have reached them. It's highlighted the web's ability to reach a group of people that would normally be out of touch."
Kennedy says he doesn't know of any other country that uses website advertising in such a way to reach travellers in an emergency, although Lonely Planet does carry some emergency contact numbers for travellers. Kennedy would also recommend Kiwis register with diplomatic posts in the less secure parts of the world should they be travelling there.
"Most of our diplomatic posts have websites of their own that can be accessed off our site - you can register with them by email usually."