Why Rich Media Is Suddenly Everywhere

(Originally published in ClickZ, May 2003) by Eric Picard

Obviously, I believe in rich media. I founded an early rich media advertising company. I risked everything, convinced a few friends to join me, and started a company with the mission of improving online advertising results with innovative rich media ad technology.

Rich media has since ceased to be “standalone.” It’s a feature, not a product. It’s the special sauce, the frosting, the packaging that catches a consumer’s eye and draws her into a message.

I always believed rich media would dominate online advertising. Even to the point the term “rich media” would one day disappear. “High-fidelity” audio is an example of a term that vanished once the description became ubiquitous.

Rich media is on the verge of ubiquity. Every site I visit on a daily basis is filled with it. It’s a medium of choice for online ads. Animated GIFs account for the majority, but we’ve seen huge increases in Flash ownership. In 2001, Flash accounted for less than 2 percent of ads served through our ad servers. Today, over a quarter of the ads we serve are Flash.

The real question is, “Why?” Why did rich media finally achieve prominence? Why now?

Broadband Adoption

This is a sore point for me. Broadband adoption has soared over the past few years. Certainly, it hasn’t penetrated as quickly or deeply as some predicted, but it’s made huge gains. Broadband is a factor in rich media adoption, but its effect is more psychological.

Flash (for example) doesn’t require broadband to be effective. Most rich media technologies have employed mechanisms for some time to mitigate dial-up speeds. The misconception that rich media requires broadband certainly made it hard for adoption to take off before there was a consensus that broadband penetration was high enough.

Many of the biggest ad agencies are watching broadband adoption rates because they long to run online video (another story entirely). Until now, they didn’t feel the audience was large enough.

Flash Player Penetration

Macromedia has done an excellent job of hollering from rooftops that its Flash player is on nearly every browser on the planet. Once media and creative teams were armed with stats to show clients, the Flash adoption battle was won.

Branding and Direct Response

Numerous studies prove clearly online advertising has a significant branding effect. Many of those studies show rich media use significantly improves recall and other branding criteria. At the same time, plenty of studies indicate significant conversion boosts when rich media is used. This is one of the few times online brand and direct response advertisers have had consensus.

Falling Click Rates

Any sophisticated online marketer shudders at the thought of the click rate being used as an indicator of effectiveness. Unfortunately, it’s still a widely misused marketing success metric. As rich media enjoys much higher click rates, the metric is easy to use when trying to demonstrate an increase in effectiveness or mitigate a decrease in click rate for nonrich media.

Natural Selection

Possibly the least-discussed but highly significant factor in rich media’s rise. Since that oft-mentioned bubble burst, the online advertising industry suffered tremendous layoffs. Individuals who survived really are the cream of the crop. You’ll find very few dim bulbs anywhere in this industry today. It’s no accident the leaders in this space are all proponents of rich media and willing to push the creative and media planning envelope.

Publisher Financial Need

The number one reason rich media flowered. Online publishers have suffered huge revenue losses. They struggle to get a tiny fraction of prices they once charged for online media. This has made even the most conservative publisher open to almost any type of campaign.

If you’d told me three years ago Yahoo would be a Flash and rich media bastion, I’d have scoffed. The battles I was fighting! It wasn’t that long ago Yahoo had strict limits on the number of rotations an animated GIF could cycle through. Today, the site teems with floating ads, expanding banners, and all sorts of rich media that wouldn’t have been tolerated in the past.


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