Category Archives: Rich Media

Get creative with hyperlocal targeting

By Eric Picard & Max Dowaliby (Originally Published on Imedia – December 16, 2015)

Hyperlocal targeting is the shiniest method of delivering advertising to consumers based on their exact location.  This is geo-targeting taken to the logical conclusion of every person carrying a GPS locator on their person wherever they go, even though GPS is only one method of determining location. The introduction of location data into mobile advertising has allowed advertisers to leverage the always-on, always-connected mobile device as an indicator of location. This has driven hyperlocal targeting to become one of the fastest growing mechanisms to capture dollars allocated to local advertising.

According to Borrell Associates, 42 percent of all local advertising is expected to be digital in 2015, totaling over $47 billion. Sixty-one percent of smartphone users say that they are more likely to buy from mobile sites and applications if they customize content or information to the current location of the user.

There are many complexities to local advertising that have not been sorted out, even with these advances.  For years, analysts have been talking about the coming transition of local dollars to digital, but it is possible that hyperlocal targeting could change this. The main issues in the transition of local to digital has been the so-called “local independents” — the “mom-and-pop” shops — which are the standalone companies that make up the vast majority of local businesses.  For these companies, local for years has meant Yellow Pages and newspapers, and, for the larger ones, radio and potentially local television. Mainly this has been held back due to creative production, as these small businesses don’t have the means to create advertising to fit the needs of the digital space.

The “national-local” advertisers — the brands with local presence — ranging from quick-service restaurants to retailers are the main drivers of adoption of digital. Until mobile location data really became actionable, there was still little reason for the local dollars of the national brands to transition to digital — as geo-targeting was seen as too vague, and the creative value propositions were not quite strong enough. Things are changing.

Hyperlocal targeting is not a simple mechanism for identifying or targeting users. It’s more of an overall set of services for leveraging highly accurate, fresh, and relevant data about a user in order to make the best decision matching the ad opportunity to the consumer, based on their exact location. Let’s explore hyperlocal location targeting (what most people are referring to when they say hyperlocal targeting):

Advertisers have been able to do some sort of location targeting for years now. Targeting based on city, DMA, or zip code have been well-used and well-performing tactics. However, the real challenge here is getting more granular than a zip code. Since mobile phones provide signals that allow us to achieve incredibly granular information, the mass adoption and nonstop usage of these devices has — in many ways — solved the problem for us.

Hyperlocal location targeting refers to the ability to be able to target small areas or “geo-fences,” including radius (general distance from a target location) and polygonal geo-fences (a shape drawn on a map). Both of these mechanisms have uses for targeting users; for instance, a message could be sent to users when inside a certain radius of a specifically targeted destination. An example: A retailer might want to send “message A” when a user is within 2 miles, “message B” when a user is within 1 mile, and “message C” when a user is within 100 meters. This can be an extremely powerful tool to drive foot traffic or engagement. This location information also allows advertisers to provide relevant, and contextually aware content to users. In the case of a polygon, a quick-service restaurant that delivers food might have very specific streets that become a boundary for where they deliver from one location versus another — and radius simply won’t solve for this.

We now have incredibly accurate signals by which we should be able to target users, but there are still some key challenges when trying to leverage this data. Arguably the most important is the accuracy of this information. Depending on where the location information is coming from (browser, in-app, carrier, etc.), the precision varies greatly. Location information is conveyed via latitude-longitude coordinate pairs, and, as such, can vary in degrees of precision. Carrier-provided location data is often only accurate to the area that an individual cell tower provides service to, whereas in-app provided location data can be extremely accurate and place a user inside a retail store, or even in a certain part of a retail store. There is also a large amount of (usually) unintentional location fraud. This refers to revered latitude-longitude pairs, missing coordinates, or centroids (a central point in a city, state, country, etc.). There are numerous location targeting partners who cleanse and validate location data to help this problem, but it remains an issue that cannot be ignored.

Freshness of the location information is important in hyperlocal location targeting. It is critical that a user be messaged when they are physically at a certain location, not when they were there five minutes ago. One of the challenges of dealing with location information is that this data cannot be cached the same way most information about a user can be. Location is fluid, and users are constantly moving. This makes location data at scale an incredible amount of information to process.

However, when these challenges are overcome, there results are worth it. A quality hyperlocal campaign can provide incredible utility and relevance to a user. Messaging a user at the right place and right time works, we know that. It’s all about the execution. Users are clamoring for this kind of utility. Eighty percent of Google searches that included the term “near me” were from mobile devices in Q4 2014. Even more importantly, the prevalence of the term “near me” is up 34 times since 2011. Users now want — if not demand — relevant information and experiences based on where they are. Hyperlocal is a buzz word, and for good reason. Let’s just make sure we use it to its fullest capabilities. Get creative!

Time for a New Mobile Ad Format

By Eric Picard (Originally published on AdExchanger.com 11/19/12)

I’ve been designing, prototyping and deploying new ad formats in digital advertising for more than 15 years. I started one of the first rich media advertising companies, where we pioneered many of the ad formats that today are standard offerings – starting in late 1997.  And I ran a team at Microsoft that focused on building new ad unit prototypes for emerging media for several years, which created hundreds of prototypes that were shown to dozens of brands and creative agencies for feedback, and we ran many studies.

I tell you all this not to toot my own horn, but to explain that when I suggest that I’m going to propose a new ad format for the mobile industry, I’m not doing so idly.  I’ve been doing this professionally for my entire career, and the problem of putting new ad formats on devices is one that I’ve thought an awful lot about.  In fact, the format I’m going to suggest is very similar to one I proposed for another new device that was an innovative music and media player.  But I’ll hold off on the specifics for a bit.

The biggest problem with mobile advertising today is the ad formats being deployed. The screen is very small, and even a very small ad unit that isn’t well integrated into the screen experience of an app or mobile website causes a dissonance that is simply unacceptable to most users.  And app developers see this clearly – using the presence of ads not really to drive ad revenue, but rather to annoy the crap out of consumers in order to push them to pay for the premium version of an app.  This is a very backwards approach to advertising experience, but one that has been used repeatedly over the course of digital evolution.

Ad experience design is a very tricky problem – because ad experiences need to walk the razor’s edge between grabbing the audience’s attention while not pushing them over into frustration.  For this reason, in many ways, ad experience design is far harder than standard user experience design for applications.  Unfortunately the vast majority of startups and even large companies that deploy apps and mobile sites simply slap tiny mobile banners onto their applications, and wait for the dollars to roll in. That isn’t likely to happen for most companies, because the ad experience is horrible.

So I decided that instead of simply complaining about the ad experience of mobile, I’d propose to the industry through this article a new ad format that I believe will fix the core problems with mobile ads. I hope somebody picks it up and runs with it, because I firmly believe (after many years of thinking about these problems) that it’s the right solution for mobile. And I believe the same principles behind the format I’m suggesting would work well for tablets.

Let me start by saying something perhaps a little controversial – it’s impossible for companies to differentiate from each other by using proprietary ad formats.  Note that all rich media companies offer essentially the same ad formats.  And this is one reason I’m not bullish on the current so-called “native ad format” movement.  Unless you’ve got the reach of Google, Twitter or Facebook, rolling your own ad format is stupid.  Advertising’s core principle is about reach – advertisers try to reach as broad an audience as possible that matches their target customer persona. Creative teams can’t cost effectively create unique ad formats for every publisher. This means that once a proprietary format starts getting scale, other companies copy that format and they begin to perpetuate. But we’ve only seen this happen with “native” formats when the company that created the format had large scale.  So all paid search ads pivot off Google’s format, because the same creative needs to be uniform across search engines. And when formats that were pioneered by one rich media company got traction, every other rich media company adopted those formats too.  Ad formats don’t work as product differentiators.

So what will work?

First:  The format must be integrated into the design of the application (app or web).

App and M-Web developers must build their user experience *around* the ad vehicle. So the ad vehicle can’t be crappy – it needs to fit neatly into a standard App experience. It needs to provide utility to the advertiser (enable attention to be captured, and ideally to drive activity) and it needs to nestle carefully into the utility of the application it sits in.

Second: The screen is small, so the ad needs to use the whole screen.

Interstitial advertising has been around since the early days of the web – Unicast promoted the format broadly with its Superstitial format, which then was copied by all the other companies.  But most of us who use mobile apps will probably agree that a straightforward interstitial experience is incredibly disruptive and annoying.  So putting up a full screen ad that a user has to stare at before accessing their content is simply unacceptable. What’s the answer?

Way back in 2006 I wrote an article that discussed the (then) current trend toward trying to drop short 5 second videos at the end of pods of content on television to combat fast forwarding on DVRs.  We did some research back at the time at Microsoft that showed that consumers got annoyed with advertising content about 5 seconds into the roll of a video.  We surmised at the time that for non-video content, a few seconds of static “sponsorship text” would be a good way to introduce pre-roll videos – that placing a short sponsorship message in front of the ads would soften the transition – especially if it was limited to a couple of seconds.  We’ve seen this deployed to great effect at Hulu.

I believe the answer is simple: Create a multi-part ad format that has different stages and experiences.

First it’s a full screen ad unit with basic sponsorship text: This app is proudly sponsored by “insert advertiser name here.”  Maybe the company logo can go on this screen as well. At the bottom of the full screen sponsorship, in small text, a message states: To see more, swipe the ad.

Then the full screen unit should shrink down to a “leave-behind” banner that needs to be persistent, needs to be small, and needs to be “swipeable”.  The leave-behind needs to take up the entire bottom of the screen – from left-to-right side.  The creative content in this banner may not take up the entire screen width, but can be centered in the ad unit ‘space’ and ideally the background color of the ad should be matched by the background on the two edges of the ad unit (this is technically easy to do in apps) such that it doesn’t ‘hover’ in the middle of the screen. It’s also important that the same is done with the first and second interstitials – they should cover the whole screen, and be centered in the screen – not locked “off center” to the upper left-hand corner.

The banner should have no more than three to five message transitions (animation points) that can tell an enticing message to the user to facilitate them swiping the ad.  That should be followed by a short “swipe here” animation that is instructional for users to see that they need to swipe the ad to open a bigger ad experience.

Upon swiping the ad unit, a full-screen ad should expand out of the banner unit that is fully interactive and immersive. This can be a “mini-game” experience, a video, an interactive unit that enables commerce or opting into something (a Facebook Like, tweeting a message to your friends, etc).  It should not open a mobile web browsing experience that bounces the user out of the App experience, because once a user is trained that doing anything in the ad is going to bounce them away from their game, they’ll never interact with another ad.

For Apps that have natural transition points (e.g. Moving from level-to-level in a game, or similar), the ad unit can expand out for no more than 5 seconds, and if the user chooses to interact with it – can stay up until the user closes it.

The ad transitions are extremely important to get right.  The initial interstitial unit should smoothly slide down off the screen leaving the banner unit there. The expansion of the banner to take over the whole screen also should be extremely smooth and feel “well crafted” to the audience. Also the initial interstitial should only be shown once per session to avoid annoying the audience. This won’t preclude multiple ads or advertisers per session – but will create scarcity and value to the session sponsor.

The other critical issue here is transition timing.  The initial ad experience needs to be no more than 3 seconds.  The animation frames of the leave-behind banner need to last no more than 7 to 10 seconds. Any automated expansion of the ad unit should leave the expanded page up for no more than 5 seconds.

I believe that if this ad unit were deployed uniformly across apps and mobile web experiences, the industry would see CPMs increase significantly, and the mobile advertising space could enjoy an interesting renaissance. I’m sure there are other answers to this problem – other formats for instance – that would work equally well, or even better.  But if the industry doesn’t lock to a standard format quickly – I fear that the space will continue to languish and won’t see the growth it deserves.

As I said above, ad formats don’t work as product differentiators.  But the largest players do have the ability to use their reach as a driver of format adoption – which is good for the industry. Apple, Google and Microsoft should work together here to drive adoption of a great uniform ad unit that can work across mobile devices.

Follow Eric Picard (@ericpicard) on Twitter.

Why publishers’ ad experiences need to be more flexible

(By Eric Picard, Originally Published in iMediaConnection.com October 11, 2012)

In 2004, I was recruited to Microsoft, where among other things I was put in charge of coming up with a new plan for the overall advertising experience for MSN and, soon after, Windows Live. I spent about eight months digging into the advertising experience as it then existed and tried to rationalize how advertising should work on a major site like MSN and across a variety of user experiences.

In an early meeting with a group of folks from the sales team, Gayle Troberman made a fateful suggestion: “You really need some kind of framework for assessing what kind of ad fits in what kind of experience.” This was a key suggestion because it forced me to assemble a cross-disciplinary team and create a shared language that drove numerous long-term decisions.

The first-order considerations were driven by “user modality,” which is defined as the behavior and related mindset that a user is engaged in during specific activities. We needed to determine which advertising experiences were acceptable in each type of modality that existed across the myriad experiences on our properties. By carefully considering modality, we were able to create a set of guidelines for what advertising should be enabled in each type of environment.

To illustrate the point, let me give a few key examples of what we put together:

  • Users who are reading email are open to advertising experiences that are relevant and non-invasive, but that are not explicitly targeted to that user based on the content of the mail — which just is creepy.
  • Users who are writing email are not open to advertising experiences.
  • Users who have sent email are open to a broader ad experience with a larger format ad.
  • Users who are reviewing a home page or section front are open to a large format ad.
  • Users who are reading an article are open to non-invasive ads that can be large format as long as they don’t encroach on the reading experience.

The guidelines I created with that team quickly became the overall framework used by Microsoft to drive advertising experiences across all content experiences across MSN, Windows Live, and even in a variety of emerging media experiences. My “day job” at the time was managing product planning for emerging media, which at that time included video, over-the-top television, mobile, video games, software applications, and new device formats (e-readers, tablets and other device prototypes, Zune, etc.).

Some key principles that I came up with include the following:

  • Ensure that ad clutter is kept to a minimum. It’s better to have one very large-format ad on a page than five small-format ads.
  • Ensure that ads have enough white space around them.
  • Give the user the ability to give feedback about ads (both positive and negative) — such as rating ads.
  • Be transparent about behavioral targeting of ads, including how an ad was targeted to them and what profile information we stored about users. Enable users to correct and enhance their targeting profiles. (This was the most controversial of my recommendations and was discussed at length.)
  • Enable every ad unit to become “rich media enabled” with specific templatized enhancements, such as a store locator, a pop-up video unit, RFI, and others.

Like many efforts I’ve been engaged in over the years, this one met with a mixture of success and failure. It took almost five years before we enacted most of the privacy and targeting features I recommended. And none of the rich media templates ever saw the real world. But the user modality guidelines were a huge hit — maybe in a sense these were too successful. Sometimes the creation of a set of clearly defined “rules” empowers folks who are embedded more deeply in an organization to say “no” to next efforts very quickly. This is often the case with any standards effort, whether at the industry level or within a specific organization.

I experienced this one day when I was trying to roll out a new set of ad formats for software applications. I sat down with the product manager in charge of the effort, and when I started walking him through the prototypes, he quickly stopped me with a clear set of concerns: “Uhm… look — these ad formats clearly don’t fit the ad experience framework we use here. So I’m just going to have to say ‘no.'”

Of course, once he learned that I had written those guidelines, the conversation was reopened. But this is an important lesson. Core principles always need to be flexible enough to allow testing the edges and borders of experiences. Once a new content experience is rolled out, an ad experience needs to be tried out with it. Sometimes that new experience doesn’t fit in the guidelines you’ve created.

Making the most of the New IAB Creative Formats

By Eric Picard (First published May 21st, 2012 on iMediaConnection.com)

The IAB has finally released new creative standards for the first time in a decade. The new rich media branding units (formerly called “rising stars”) are now officially the newest standards out there and should drive a new revolution in advertising online. Creative formats are the No. 1 reason that major brands have not adopted online advertising to the extent that spend matches hours spent. (There are several other major issues, but this one is the biggest.)

So where do these new rising stars fit in the overall continuum of online display advertising? And how fast can we expect them to be adopted? Let’s review.

There are two types of advertising experiences that are created on major publisher sites today.

One is an extremely brand-centric page-takeover type experience that is very custom and fundamentally overtakes the user experience on the homepage (or section front) of a major publisher to give a quality brand significant creative license. This is great for everyone, including the audience visiting the site. The experience is custom, crafted, and well considered. But this doesn’t scale as a business model, and many publishers don’t yield much profit from these implementations. They’re essentially loss leaders that bring in more spend on scalable inventory.

So what is “scalable inventory?” Well, judging from the 20 or so major publisher sites I just visited, it looks like that has consolidated around a combination of two standard IAB formats — the leaderboard (728×90) and the medium rectangle (300×250). There are, of course, a few other formats that are used at some degree of scale, particularly various formats of the skyscraper ads out there. But I’ve been seeing fewer of these on major publications, which seem to be consolidating on the 728×90 and 300×250 combination.

On one level, this makes me very happy — because I made very strong recommendations to adopt these two formats as the industry standard when they were released. In 2002. Yes, the UAP format standards were released to the industry way back in 2002. (Yes, that’s a decade ago.)

The problem with this lag is that while screen resolutions have radically increased in this timeframe, the formerly “large” 300×250 standard ad unit is now a postage-stamp sized unit.

The graphic above is one I created in 2009 to make the point that creative formats were too small. The problem has gotten worse with wide-screen monitors becoming the new standard.

Now that we have the first new formats available in a decade, it’s on the shoulders of media buyers and publishers to force this issue. First, media buyers must demand this inventory from publishers at scale. They should be pushing to get these units on every page of every publisher they buy from. These shouldn’t be a more-scaled version of the page takeover; they shouldn’t be special media buys that are a fixed percentage of a buy. They should be the bulk of every buy.

As for publishers, they need to enable (and quickly) every page on their sites to immediately adopt these units as their standard unit. The UAP is a decade old, far too small, and very prone to banner blindness by users. These new ad formats are well-thought-through and do a great job of catching user attention.

Publishers also need to make sure that these new units are not held aside as special options and used like rich media has been used for more than a decade now — as the way to preserve floor price. Yes, that’s a good thing for us to do; publishers should be preserving floor price wherever they can. But if we don’t aggressively move off of the long-in-the-tooth formats from 2002, we’re going to continue to see overall CPM erode.

Publishers must also make sure that these new units are made available for programmatic buying and selling. If we move to a world where hand-sold inventory is the rising star units, and all page views serviced by ad exchanges are UAP ads, publishers are going to cause a huge economic problem for themselves. I can imagine the argument being made that this helps with channel conflict resolution — but it won’t. It will create a new class of ridiculously cheap inventory that will further erode overall CPMs.

If media buyers demand that all their buys fit these new formats, and if publishers ensure that there is no friction in acquiring ads in these formats at scale, the whole industry will significantly benefit.

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!

Why online creative stinks so badly

(Originally published in iMediaconnection, March 2009) by Eric Picard

Recently Randy Rothenberg, CEO of the IAB, released a manifesto for the improvement of creative online. He and I have discussed this a few times, and I’m right there with him: God, we suck so badly. It’s an issue that has existed since the beginning of our industry, and despite all good work that’s been done by individual creative teams for individual advertisers, we still are a sucky environment for showing ads.

The size issue
I have lots of opinions on what has driven this, but the primary one is that our ad formats are simply too small, so we’ll start there. The historical background is simple on this: When the web was invented, people were accessing it over very low-speed modems. Every image was a big deal, and page load speeds were incredibly slow. So the physical size of banner ads was limited on multiple fronts.

As bandwidth increased and average resolutions increased, larger formats were approved. But it’s been six years since the industry adopted larger ad formats via the Universal Ad Package in 1992. Since then, we’ve increased bandwidth significantly — with much higher broadband adoption — and screen resolutions have once again increased significantly. Additionally, we now have a large number of widescreen monitors on the market, with the standards moving to the aspect ratio of HD content rather than SD television content.

It’s a negligibly easy thing to detect screen resolution and connection speed. Those of us who were pioneers in the rich media advertising space were doing this kind of thing way back in the late ’90s. There’s absolutely no reason that as an industry we can’t offer much larger ad formats to the market.

The formats I would suggest we look at are a 600 x 500 (twice the size of a 300 x 250) and a renewed push for standardizing the 300 x 600 ad format, which was previously named the “half page ad” (but which is hardly a half-page ad when used as a skyscraper on a modern widescreen monitor.

I’d also suggest that we as an industry lock down to a new “brand session” model, where we offer an advertiser the ability to reach each visitor to a website with a one-to-three impression brand exposure session. (This would be adding the concept of frequency to the online impression model.) All ad serving systems offer some degree of frequency capping, meaning that we could simply limit the number of these large-format ads that are shown to a visitor during a single website session. The session would start with one large format ad, then be followed by two of the current UAP ad formats that are standard in the industry today.

Interactivity issues
The other major reason our advertising creatives are so bad has to do with a lack of interactivity. The ad industry has simply not embraced the concept of interactivity — despite having the ability to build interactive ads since the late 1990s.

The thing that makes me sad (yes, it actually does make me sad) is that at Bluestreak, back in the day, we were building ads that would still be seen as “groundbreaking” today from a creative standpoint. But from a functionality standpoint, we launched expanding banners in 1999 that could transact within the banner. We rolled out rich media interactivity and a design tool to build rich media ads. Designers could build interactive ad experiences with all sorts of “bolt on” capabilities, like video, audio, games, etc. Every capability we created in Java back in those days can be fully replicated today with Flash, and there are literally thousands (maybe even tens of thousands) of designers who are quite expert with Flash.

So we have every opportunity to build better ads, but nobody is doing it. I’d love to understand why. Essentially, Flash is used by the vast majority of advertisers to build “fancy animation” that is only a little more advanced than the animated GIF ads that began to surface in the early days of online advertising.

And size is not the issue. With expanding ad units available from every major rich media vendor today, giving audiences the ability to interact with ads in a space large enough to create an emotional connection is quite simple. Although rich media vendors are doing a great job when advertisers are willing to sign up for an “advanced campaign,” the overall percentage of ads that fall into this category is quite low. Frequently, the goal of the advertiser falls more toward direct response than delivering an emotional brand message.

Even if we look at a direct response model, advertisers are not taking full advantage of the medium. Back in the day at Bluestreak, we routinely found that conversion rates were extremely high for actions like newsletter subscriptions, contest sign-ups, requests for product information, or even, in some cases, sales of inexpensive products. I’ve confirmed with a few folks in the last year or two that they see similar conversion rates for ads that push the conversion action into the ad rather than requiring a redirect to a website. So if we saw this back in the late ’90s, why are so few advertisers making use of this kind of functionality?

Conclusion 
I do firmly believe that increasing the size of the creative formats is the primary issue to resolve. But adoption of rich media and interactivity is another area where we should see major adoption. Every ad on the internet should give users the option to expand the ad, request more information, watch a video demo of the product, or even to purchase the product right from the ad. I had this vision for our industry in 1997 when we first started building the technology behind Bluestreak’s now defunct E*Banner product. And the idea that more than 10 years later the industry still isn’t there is not just disappointing. It’s sad.

Make Rich Media Richer

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

Last month, I pronounced control the killer app. Let’s discuss how to make use of that knowledge when it comes to the advanced use of rich media.

It isn’t enough to build hot rich media creative to seize user attention. It isn’t enough to follow any one or even several strategic “rules” to get the best results. To squeeze the greatest value out of your interactive efforts, approach your offering from the user’s perspective. Give users as much control as possible. At the very least, don’t make it hard for them to help you achieve your campaign goals.

Back in the days when Bluestreak was primarily a rich media company, I ran our rich media services group. We provided strategy and production. I worked on hundreds of rich media ad campaigns. We learned a lot about what works. At the time, much of that required our proprietary Java technology. Now, Flash supports almost all the things we toiled away on in rich media’s early days.

I no longer consult on rich media creative strategy, so I thought I’d share some insights (given there’s no conflict of interest). Below, how rich media can serve you better than most of what’s online today.

Remove Barriers

Ignore interactive design constraints at your own risk. Far too often, direct response campaigns employ rich media in ways that create barriers to the transaction. In many game ads, for example, a user is required to complete a series of relatively complex actions before gaining access to a form or being able to click to the Web site. This is fine for a branding campaign, but not for direct response.

If the goal is branding and building brand perception, measure as much about the interaction within the ad as possible. Record interaction time, conduct a Dynamic Logic study, track every action taken. This provides a good sense of increase in brand awareness driven by keeping users engaged with the ad.

But for goodness sake, if the goal is to drive traffic or convert users within the ad, don’t erect barriers that keep your audience from achieving your goal. It’s your goal, not theirs. Want to elicit a specific response? Make it easy.

Collect Data Locally

This one blows me away. Plenty of pretty advanced rich media ads collect data. But data is collected on a remote Web site, not within the ad itself. There are huge increases in response when data is captured within the ad rather than on a remote site. Back in the day, we averaged roughly a 70 percent conversion rate for non-credit card transactions within rich media ads.

Part of the increase could certainly be attributed to novelty. Few advertisers were doing this at the time. But much of it has to do with basic human nature. People are unlikely to disrupt what they’re doing to sign up for a newsletter or contest (even if they’re interested). If the conversion can occur right on the same page they want to be on, they’re more likely to convert.

Collecting data in Flash is a simple, straightforward process Flash developers should understand. (If they don’t, the help files are a good place to start. Everything’s clearly explained.) Flash can submit data from an ad to your Web site as easily as you collect it from the site itself. You can even pass data into a Flash file from a remote site using a DNS alias (bounce me an email if you need details) or Flash Remoting.

Create Multipage Ads

Think of a rich media ad as a miniature Web site. There’s no reason to be limited to one page. Flash easily runs multiple “pages” of ads, and even loads multiple Flash files in one main placeholder file. The user experience can be broken into reasonable, bite-sized chunks, all from the same Web page the ad resides on (Warning: Make sure the publisher doesn’t set the page to automatically refresh on a regular basis).

By breaking the ad into multiple Flash files and loading them separately, the file size of each section is low. The ad loads quickly and adheres to the publisher’s size limits. Remember to delay loading additional content until either the page is finished loading (typically less than 10 seconds) or the user clicks within the ad.

Provide Value

Make sure you provide some reason for the user to go through multiple pages of ad content. Too often, rich media use is gratuitous. Each element of creative must be justified from a user perspective:

  • Let the user research your offer. There’s an unlimited number of pages at your disposal. Let the customer research the offer within the ad. Flash can load text files and information files dynamically. Take advantage of it! Use the pages on your Web site dedicated to describing the offer and includethem in the ad rather than popping open a new browser window.
  • Let the user explore. Employ multiple assets to make your case. Rather than build numerous creatives with different purposes, link all creative to the same back end to save money. Again, you can load new Flash as a separate file, so file size limitations aren’t an issue.

    For example, three separate “teaser” ads might attract attention and bring the user into the content. Load the same content into each ad. You could use a tabular interface with one option showing a product video, another providing a product description, a third displaying detailed technical specifications, and a fourth letting users sign up in the ad for more information or a newsletter. Further options might include a print option, chat, customer service or sales callbacks, even full product purchase — all right within the ad.

  • Expand your horizons. Even if you’re not dealing with large-format ads, there’s no reason not to think big. Many publishers let you expand ads right over page content. There’s no reason a 468 x 60 ad can’t expand up to three times the size of the original, providing plenty of room to maneuver.

Don’t Let Cost Stand in the Way

A complex rich media experience will obviously cost more than a simple GIF replacement Flash ad. Even when factoring in the additional cost of rich media production, return on investment should more than justify the expense. Don’t judge results on just a single campaign. You will learn more each time and will likely improve with experience.

Attend conferences, join discussion lists, and feel free to send me questions about your goals. Most of what works well is grounded in common sense. Above all, track everything you possibly can. The data will set you free!

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.

Flash Flood Rising

(Originally published in ClickZ, June 2002) by Eric Picard

In recent weeks, I’ve had a lot of reason to watch the rising Flash floodwaters with great anticipation. Macromedia is on the cusp of realizing the true potential of Flash, a development with encouraging implications for the rich media ad business.

About a month ago, Macromedia announced the release of Flash MX. The advertising world generally ignores new releases of Flash because of the player issues — we can’t use the fun features of the new Flash release until the corresponding Flash player hits at least 80 percent market acceptance across all Web users. But this time the capabilities of Flash have undergone a quiet revolution. You need to be aware of the hidden capabilities, because they could change the way you approach building rich media ads. And for those of you who build Web sites or are involved in wireless, iTV, and other interactive initiatives, there is similar change coming.

First, let me share why I’m so intimately familiar with the technology. Much of the strength I see in this Flash release has to do with dynamically generated content. Macromedia has discussed, but not yet announced, an upcoming release of a Flash Real-Time Server system, which will enable the simple creation of dynamic applications in Flash. Bluestreak, a company I co-founded, pioneered this in the advertising space in our Java-based ads way back in 1998. We built ads that were tied to customers’ databases, collected and distributed information, and showed real-time content.

I started investigating the integration of Flash more than a year ago. Flash clearly became the winner of the rich media wars when Microsoft removed the JVM from Internet Explorer. Bluestreak needed to dive deep into the Flash technology and see what competitive advantages we could uncover from an ad-serving standpoint.

As part of our investigations, I compared Flash with Java on stability, power, and extensibility. I have to admit being a bit surprised at what I found. Flash isn’t just “flashy,” it is also a very powerful technology — actually it’s very similar to the JVM that enables Java to run in the browser. So, we licked our wounds and gave Macromedia a call. We implemented Flash into our ad server as a natively supported creative format — and tied our existing rich media tracking directly to Flash.

Now Macromedia has released Flash MX and its corresponding Flash 6 player. Find out about the basics of Flash MX at the Macromedia Web site. I’ll focus here on the less publicized things that Flash MX can do — and why you should care.

One great resource I came across is a Flash white paper by Macromedia CTO Jeremy Allaire (former CEO of Allaire), which really gives insight into the corporate vision for Flash. Macromedia bought Allaire last year, and the MX suite is one result of this marriage. Flash MX is an integral part of Macromedia’s forward-thinking mission. To understand the power of MX, you need to change your view of the current world.

Today we’re very HTML-centric about how the Web works. Even nontechnical people are affected by the limitations of HTML — they just don’t realize it. Let’s look at some of these limitations — and the changes that Flash makes to alleviate each problem.

Dynamically Generated Content

  • HTML. In HTML, the only kind of content that can be dynamically generated is text (and calls to nondynamic objects, such as images). And if you want to change that content, you need to reload the page.
  • Flash MX. The possibilities are truly endless with Flash. Anything can be dynamically generated, from graphics to charts and graphs. And the new application interfaces for features such as “Flash Remoting” promise amazing breakthroughs in what can be generated dynamically without refreshing pages.
  • Examples of use. Imagine a Web application for MapQuest that shows you one map of a city and allows you to drill down as deeply as you’d like within that map — all without refreshing the page. Imagine building charts for a Web-based analytics application that could show any graphical depiction of your data that you can imagine — and that graphic could be interactive, zoomable, and collapsible.

Data Transfer Size and Bandwidth Costs

  • HTML. When content needs to be updated on an HTML page, the entire page must be refreshed for you to see the change. An immense amount of data must transfer to pass a relatively small piece of data. This means big dollars from a Web-serving standpoint, and in this post-VC-funded world, you’d better believe that your IT department cares about bandwidth costs.
  • Flash MX. Content within Flash can be dynamically updated without refreshing the page. This means independent chunks of data (text, images, video files, new Flash files, etc.) can be passed into the page without refreshing other content.
  • Examples of use. Think about the millions of times an hour (across users) pages on a site like E*Trade need to be refreshed to see the text in stock quotes change. With Flash MX, only the text of the individual stock quotes needs to change — nothing else is uploaded or refreshed — saving the publisher lots of money on bandwidth charges and giving the user a much more palatable experience.

Compatibility of Distributed Content

  • HTML. Every browser version on every OS is slightly different and requires different coding behaviors by the HTML author. Nowhere is this more true than across devices, where the HTML shown on wireless devices and that on Web pages are radically different. This leads to immense development resource issues (just to support browsers, let alone multiple devices) and has a huge impact on quality assurance timelines.
  • Flash MX. The Flash player is virtually identical across browsers and platforms. In a sense, Flash is more universal than HTML — and truly a more “develop once, play anywhere” technology. Since Flash has a vector graphics engine at its core, it can scale content to any dimension (even to a tiny little cell phone screen) without loss of quality or need to redesign. This is more important given the host of distribution agreements Macromedia has signed with virtually every major device sector — from cell phone makers to cable infrastructure companies to game console manufacturers.
  • Examples of use. Imagine developing one Web site/application that would work on any platform, any device, any screen size or shape. The costs of supporting dynamic pages across browsers, platforms, and devices in HTML is very high (see the “download map to PDA” link in MapQuest for an example).

I’ve covered a few of the less publicized features of Flash MX that I don’t think most people have heard about, let alone recognized for the revolutionary features they are. But there is a lot more where those came from, and I hope all the designers and developers out there will start cracking their knuckles and jumping into the fray. This is just the beginning.

Note: In my last column I spoke about an atrocious ad unit that was running on MSNBC for an online casino. I was contacted by an MSNBC representative, who stated the ad referenced by my article had been trafficked in error and was implemented unintentionally. Once the company realized the error, it pulled the ad down. In the company rep’s words: “We care about our customers and listen to their feedback. As such, we apologize to any customer who encountered this ad and continue to be committed to closely reviewing the methods used to market products on MSN.”

Is Our Industry a Modern-Day Sodom and Gomorrah?

(Originally Published in ClickZ, April 2002) by Eric Picard

Imagine you’re visiting a respectable news Web site — a major news site, not a niche one — and when you leave the page, suddenly all hell breaks loose on your browser. I’m not talking about a simple pop-under ad. I’m talking about a violent uprising — an advertising onslaught of fire-and-brimstone proportions. I mean a situation so evil that “the hand of God” should come down and squash the perpetrators.

Think I’m exaggerating? I honestly don’t think so. The site was MSNBC, and the advertisement was an “out of body experience” for an online casino. To see this ad (unless it was pulled down), please use this link.

Let’s dissect the user experience:

  1. You visit a news story on MSNBC.
  2. You click any link on the page to leave, or you close your browser window.
  3. Another browser window is launched that immediately expands to cover the entire screen — including your Windows task bar. The content of this window is a full-page ad for an online casino.
  4. A second browser window launches as a pop-up set to a specific size — also for the online casino.
  5. Frustrated, you click to close the small pop-up window.
  6. Growing more frustrated, you click to close the “uberwindow” that covers your entire desktop.
  7. Upon closing the large window, a small system-message window (not a browser window) appears asking, “Would you like to play our NO DOWNLOAD casino games right now?” And below the message are “OK” and “Cancel” buttons.
  8. 99 percent of you undoubtedly now hit “Cancel” while muttering under your collective breath.
  9. 1 percent of you are so intrigued (or angry) that you hit “OK” to find out what happens next. This opens yet another browser window (set to full screen, since the last window you closed was a full-screen window) that gives access to Java-based casino games.
  10. You either immediately close this new window, or play some games and close it later. When you do close it, a pop-up window is spawned that offers to do one of three things for you:
    • Add it to your Favorites.
    • Make it your home page.
    • Receive an email with a link to this site (a form field allows you to enter your email address).

    There is no “close” button, but there is a “submit” button.

    This is not a good idea. In fact, this is a very, very bad idea from virtually every angle at which you examine it.

    Publisher. MSNBC deserves every flame and hacker attack that it undoubtedly got from users who were afflicted with this ad. If I had this experience more than a few times in short succession, I would never return to the site.

    I understand (more than most) the need to hit revenue targets — both for the publisher selling media and for the advertiser buying it. Still, publishers need to make responsible decisions about what kind of ad content they will accept. They need to scrutinize both the product being advertised and the ad vehicle being used to promote it. Users will rebel at a certain point — and an ad like this perfectly illustrates the point when you’ll hear from more than just the “noisy few”; you’ll hear from the “loud masses.”

    <NOTE: I did eventually hear from MSNBC and they apologized and said that they took this ad down, and that this slipped through their ad operations process, but was not condoned or approved.>

    Advertiser. Short-term revenue gains don’t justify an “any means necessary” approach to attracting customers. On the other hand, this is a casino, and I’m not that familiar with this industry. The casino may be doing all kinds of research that says “People hate us already. We can do anything we want and not change opinion.” My advice to them: This is the kind of thing that will drive the regulation of online advertising. And that kind of regulation would be welcome and embraced by most users.

    User. I know almost everything there is to know about Web technology — and pretty much everything there is to know about online ad technology. This ad made me nervous that somehow (even though I intellectually knew it wasn’t possible) these guys were going to steal my email address without me knowing it — or install a virus on my computer.

    If even I had a momentary concern about this, think of the hundreds or thousands of people (depending on penetration of this ad) who were really worried about it.

    If anything is going to turn people off online advertising, this is it. As an industry, we need to halt this kind of thing. I would like to call on the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) to look at asking its members to voluntarily ban this type of ad vehicle. This kind of thing must not be allowed to become a common practice. This cannot be the next X10 pop-under of our industry.