Recently joining the pileup of failed startups this year was a particularly memorable one called Digiscents. Its founders, Dexter Smith and Joel Bellenson, announced a true tech breakthrough a couple of years ago: a device that produced all manner of smells–digitally, not physically.

Digiscents promised to “scent enable” everything from websites to video games to movies. Digiscents laid off its entire staff back in April, but Smith and Bellenson haven’t given up the cause. The company became laughably overhyped and paid the price when it failed to deliver either a product (called iSmell) or paying customers. However, digitized scent remains a valuable, though still undeveloped, commodity when it comes to experience-oriented products such as video games–where sensory overload is the over-arching goal.

That’s why some other companies ­are still on the hunt for this nascent market. Aromajet, like Digiscents, has developed a scent-releasing device that game players wear around their necks and use to smell burning rubber as they whip a car around a curve; or gunpowder as they fire off another round at their opponents. (Hardly an enticing opportunity for me personally, but hey, if serious game players want it, great.)

Then there’s ScentAir Technologies, whose scent cartridges belch out smells like “Dinosaur Breath” and “Oily Machinery” for passersby at Disneyland and Universal Studios. Another company, Trisenx, still promises to scent-enable Websites with everything from pizza to perfume aromas.

Digiscents and other digital-scent producers might look laughable now, but the importance of selling experience, not just products, is here to stay. You think business stinks now? Just wait.

Wall Street Shuns Dot-Coms?

The news from Wall Street in recent months has not exactly helped the cause of marketing departments. It is difficult enough to craft an effective advertising campaign without being sideswiped by headlines such as “Wall Street Shuns Dot-Coms” and “Bearish Investors Flee to Blue Chips.”

Headlines like these are now a part of the New Economy business climate. And while it is impossible to forecast the impact of a sustained downturn on corporate marketing budgets, one thing is certain: Conditions are going to be more difficult for a while than they were in the late 1990s.

But take heart. An economic downturn need not signal drastic reductions in the scope of marketing plans. Think of it instead as the birth of smart marketing. What’s more, bear market marketing may pay off better in the long run than all those pricey ads and gimmicks did way back in 1999.

“Things that might not have been very powerful before a recession become very powerful in a recession,” says Bob Atkins, a vice president of Mercer Management Consulting in New York. “You’ve got to revisit the tools you’ve been using to attract and retain customers. And systematic investment in the brand during a recession can be extremely powerful when the economy snaps out of it. Those who continue to invest in brand advertising in bad times can potentially widen their lead over the competition.”

Where to begin? Here are four strategies that are helping About.com, Northwest Airlines, FTD.com, and Family.com make the most of their marketing dollars while the economy is in the doldrums:

LEVERAGE YOUR RELATIONSHIPS

Last fall, magazine publisher Primedia bought About.com, a network of more than 700 topic, shopping, and community sites. The $690 million deal enables About-which previously spent much of its ad money on guerrilla marketing-to advertise in Primedia publications such as American Baby, New York, Seventeen, and Soap Opera Digest.

Being part of the Primedia family gives the company the opportunity to leverage more than 274 print publications, and book jacket covers in elementary and high schools, to target the appropriate audience. John Caplan, president of About’s networks group, says it enables About to gain market share, get attractive ad-placement rates, and do a better job of addressing an appropriate audience. “When marketing budgets are cut but revenue goals remain the same, you have to make sure you find an audience that is large enough and will react to your messages,” Caplan says.

About.com plans to spend more than $12 million on in-house-created advertising this year. That is down from the $25 million it spent last year on marketing and advertising. But About is attracting more customers by spending less. Last November, according to Media Metrix, About was the Web’s seventh most-trafficked online property site. By December, it had jumped to sixth place, with 21.3 million U.S. viewers.

“About’s leveraging [of] Primedia’s properties makes a lot of sense,” says David Smith, president and media director of Mediasmith, a media agency in San Francisco. He says Primedia has a lot of vertical-market magazines that “match up very nicely with About, which is really a series of vertical market minisites.” And there is a lot of synergy in that deal, he says: “This could launch About into a whole new area of success.”