How we dropped the ball on rich media

(Originally published in iMediaConnection, July 2009) by Eric Picard

Back in 1997, I started one of the early rich media companies. Our goal was simple: Provide rich creative to capture attention (create awareness), interactivity to foster engagement (drive intent), and the ability to complete a transaction directly within the banner in order to drive a direct conversion — or at the very least to shepherd the consumer down the purchase funnel.

I remember clearly some of those early rich media ads. The ideas were strong, and the ads would be just as effective today as they were back in the late ’90s. Our technology enabled simple impactful ads that were very effective. We invented expanding ads to create more room so that audiences could interact and even purchase products right within the ads without leaving the pages that they were on.

For a major online book retailer, we created an ad that started with a simple rich interactive game (awareness and engagement with the brand). It offered the audience several choices for the next step — either browse some titles (foster intent), buy a book that was available for a special price (foster an immediate purchase), or sign up for one of the company’s numerous mailing lists. While we didn’t sell many books, the conversion rates on the mailing list signups were through the roof! And the amount of engagement that happened right in the ad was far beyond anyone’s expectations.

This type of experience was the norm — almost all of our customers had fantastic results — and the funny thing was that the more interactivity they injected into their ads, the more people interacted with them. As Flash began gaining prominence on pages across the web, I was extremely excited. I thought, “This is the beginning of a new age! Designers can build almost anything with Flash.” But 10 years later, what am I seeing? Amazingly executed Flash ads on every web page? No. I’m seeing basic, boring, simple animations that could be (and pretty much were) executed using simple animated GIFs. Flash offers an unbelievably powerful palette for designers, and we get the modern day equivalent of animated GIFs?

Now, rich media as a category is far from dead today. There are many companies out there building rich media ads, from rich media specific efforts from Eyeblaster, PointRoll, EyeWonder, Unicast, and others to rich media built on top of existing ad systems like Atlas, Bluestreak, DoubleClick and others. Rich media is certainly broadly available, able to be bought by any advertiser, and able to be run on almost any publisher’s site.

But that doesn’t mean that rich media is now the standard way to see ads on the web, nor that basic rich media functionality has made its way into the majority of standard ad formats out there. So let me offer a rich media manifesto for the coming decade and see if we can meet my challenge as an industry.

Minimum requirements
Every single ad should have enhanced interactive functionality built right in. Every stupid simple Flash banner out there should have buttons on the bottom of the ad (and I’d be ecstatic if the placement were standardized) with some simple (I’ll even go so far as to say template-ized) functionality that enhances the ad beyond a click-through to a web page. Simple functions that should be standard in all ads include:

  • “Watch a video demo of this product now”
  • Request a brochure by email or snail mail
  • See a map and directions to the store
  • Print a coupon

Numerous other simple types of functionality should be part of every single ad (and preferably not all in the same ad!)

Every ad should have the ability to expand (upon user request, by clicking a button) and show a larger version of the creative.

Beyond basic template functionality
I challenge every creative and art director to push the limits of what technology can do. The movie promotions have gotten pretty good at driving engagement right in rich media ads. But why aren’t pharma, autos, finance, and other categories doing the same? (Please don’t send me all the exceptions to my statements — I know there’s great rich media work being done in every category — but not enough of it! It should be the rule, not the exception!)

Every brand ad should have some capability right within the ad to move the consumer down the purchase funnel by letting them perform some action. Don’t just show a bit of animated sizzle designed to catch the consumer’s eye and create awareness; once you’ve created some awareness, let the consumer take things to the next level.

Let consumers raise their hand (by clicking their mouse on some action button) and start participating in the advertising experience right there within the publisher’s web page. Let them move beyond the list of basic functionality I provided above — push the functionality typically reserved for a website right into the ad.

Let consumers build a Mini Cooper or trick out their Scion right there on The New York Times’ homepage. Put features on one ad, and let the consumer drag them to another ad. And make the experience more than just fun — make it useful, educate them about the product or service, and provide them with opportunity to take things further.

And enough with the games already. Yes, they can be fun and engaging. But I’ve played enough rounds of miniature golf for various brands — none of which I can recall. And I’ve seen enough gimmicky rich media ads where some slick, cool, snazzy effect was figured out and applied to the creative — but had nothing to do with the brand, and didn’t enhance awareness, unaided recall, or any other important metric.

Show me the ads
I’ve just visited dozens of websites writing this story in hopes of finding some example of a cool, engaging, multi-faceted ad. One that does all the things I’m suggesting here. And I could not find one. I’m sure there is one out there somewhere on the internet right now. But I’ll be damned if I can find it. Instead I saw a banal animated ad for condoms (on a major publisher’s site), an ad on another major publisher for Time Warner Cable (which doesn’t offer service anywhere near where I’m sitting), an animated Flash ad for a major mobile carrier that could easily have been recreated as an animated GIF (this was a repeated and frustrating experience), and just a load of cruddy, awful, benign ads that don’t help the advertiser, and don’t capture the attention or add value to the consumer.

Sadly, the last decent ad I can remember seeing was one for Apple where the characters in the ad interacted with characters in another ad on the page. It was a great ad — brilliantly executed. And at the very least, it built awareness. But it was a home page takeover that isn’t scalable to execute (it couldn’t be run on any site any time). And it offered no engagement opportunity. It didn’t let me learn more about the products being discussed, and it didn’t let me find the nearest Apple store or a retailer offering their products.

We can do better! Much better! Come on, people!

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