Category Archives: Writing

5 reasons Twitter simply doesn’t matter

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

Over the course of the last few weeks I’ve had about a dozen conversations with people about Twitter. People’s feelings range from gushing love of the 140 character medium, to disdain for the narcissistic tweeters among the digerati who simply won’t shut up.

I don’t have any particular beef myself with Twitter, and I’m as jacked in, connected, and narcissistic as the next guy. But much of the conversation about Twitter is incestuous and “insider-ish.” There’s a bit of haughty staring down the nose at the unwashed masses who aren’t tweeting — as if those who don’t tweet are simply showing that they have nothing to say.

And of course this week, discussing the denial-of-service attacks against Twitter has been all the rage. Which is to say that when you don’t have a vehicle to talk about nothing — or should I say, to tweet and re-tweet the nothing that is being tweeted — folks are tweeting about not being able to tweet.

A lot has been said about the power of micro-communi-blogging, or whatever category of the week that Twitter sits within. And as a communications tool, while I personally find it unwieldy and a bit untargeted, I’m nothing but respectful of those who get value out of Twitter. Shelly Palmer, for instance, is full of ways he’s gathering value out of Twitter. He said recently that by simply tweeting that he was thinking about dinner, he immediately had a readymade dinner party without having to make a single phone call or send a single email. Or should I have said, rt: @shelly_palmer?

More power to folks who find this to be a powerful medium for communications. But have you noticed that, for the most part, the people who are “power-tweeters” are either professional writers, or are using Twitter for personal PR?

Here are the reasons the buzz surrounding Twitter is a lot of hype.

1. Twitter is a recursive conversation among individuals who are promoting their own careers.

Not participating doesn’t hurt you. In some ways, it will help you if the folks you’re trying to impress are not part of the twit-clique. There’s nothing like mutually being on the outside to solidify a relationship with an interviewer or potential client than showing your anti-Twitter camaraderie. Because goodness knows that anyone who has chosen not to tweet at this point is resentful and annoyed by all the Twitter hype. And if you’re not an idiot, you’ll have already made certain that the person you’re meeting with is not an avid tweeter — because, well, that’s quite an easy thing to verify. And for the small part of the population that is hooked on the newest form of crackberry, stroking their ego is as easy as “following” them.

2. Signing up to follow someone on Twitter is easy and painless (especially if you never check your account).

Twitter is mostly about making the folks who are tweeting feel important and loved. Not to say that I don’t love them all already. But if all I need to do is simply sign up to follow them on Twitter, what a marvelously easy thing it is to make them feel better about themselves. And of course, when someone looks me up and sees that I’m following the “who’s who” of the online advertising digerati, I look both connected and very important. Oh, and I am, baby, I am — it’s how I roll.

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3. Nobody can really follow what the hell’s going on anyway — who can read all that crap?

It’s really easy to say that you follow along on Twitter. But it’s way worse of a time-suck than email. I get about 300-500 email messages a day. Most need to be scanned or read, and about 100 of them need to be responded to or handled one way or another. I also try to read the top-of-mind industry news every day — that’s about 10-20 “must read” articles.

Last week I wrote more than 150 emails. And when I went through them (I am just that kind of geek), most of them are a few paragraphs at least. About a dozen of them are several printed pages. Plus I wrote several long documents last week. Oh — and I actually did work. Who has time to tweet?

And of course there’s the blogs of my favorite people, and my Facebook account — where I’ve shut off most of the feeds from Twitter (sorry FB friends) because I just don’t care about reading updates from whatever talk, conference, or luncheon most of my industry friends are attending. I prefer to find out what my friends are up to on Facebook — not read unedited input from my reporter friends while they’re sitting in a session at “advertising show of the week.” I’d rather read their edited article the next day, or their blog posting that night.

And there’s always my recent and growing love of Kodu on the Xbox 360 to suck away my free time.

4. Most of the professional tweeters are not writing their own stuff anyway.

Come on… you know better, don’t you? You really think all these CEOs, VPs, and entrepreneurs are writing their own tweets? Really? Yeah — and they really write all their own trade articles too. Honest.

Why do you think all the PR folks love Twitter? Just like blogging, it’s been a huge shot in the arm to the PR industry. If you have to be up to date, always responding, and seemingly always “in the know,” the only way to do that — and earn your executive salary — is to pay your PR firm to tweet for you. (Disclaimer: I write all my own articles — and I write all my own tweets.)

Yes, there are some seeming superhumans out there who manage to run their own companies, post on numerous mailing lists, tweet all over the place, write a blog, post on Facebook, spend time with the family, and have a garden (Yes, I’m talking about you, @thespos1Hespos.com,@_marketingLLC). But for the rest of us, it just doesn’t work that way.

5. It’s the future of communications!

In 20 years, we’ll find Twitter right alongside the CB radio and personal blogs. Well — maybe not personal blogs, but…

Despite my tongue-in-cheek commentary above, I actually do use Twitter — and I do find it to be an amazing communications tool. But I will say that the hype is a bit, well, hyper. Twitter is a communications tool like many others. And it’s a new type of tool that has incredible network effects. While it is popular, the value of Twitter is incredible. The more people who use it, the more valuable it is. But whether Twitter is the CB radio of our decade — or the next form of IM and email, but for broadcasting to the masses — is entirely uncertain. It will only remain as valuable as the number of people who really read it (or at least mine it and use analytics to tap into the mass-mind.)

Oh — and you can follow me at @ericpicard. I’m really active on the tweeter.

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.

Frosting, Engage, Alt.English.Usage, and Virtual Spokesmodels

(Originally published in ClickZ, April 1, 2002) by Eric Picard

An acquaintance of mine told me a story about her mother, who made a living baking high-end wedding cakes from her home. She baked at least two wedding cakes a week and ended up with a lot of “cake scraps,” which were described to me as delicious cake-crusts about three-quarters of an inch thick. And, of course, there were always containers of some fabulous butter cream or cream cheese frostings. This woman grew up with a nearly endless supply of amazingly delicious cake sandwiches (two cake scraps with frosting in the middle).

This week’s column will be a little like that. Frequently, I have story ideas that don’t quite make up a full column’s worth of discussion. Sometimes I hold onto them and am able to combine a few into a cohesive story — but this time I’m not even going to try. So, enough explanation. Here are some interesting, and hopefully delectable, tidbits for you to savor and digest slowly with a big glass of milk. (Boy, is it going to be hard to live up to this opener!)

Did Anyone Know Engage Is Still in the Ad-Serving Business?

About a month ago, I sat in on a meeting with a team from Engage to get an update on the current state of their business. Most of my readers know Engage well enough — a high-flying CMGI company that was deeply affected by the burst of the Internet bubble. It went through a string of layoffs as the company tried to reshuffle its products and offerings while reducing costs and sorting itself out.

Originally formed by CMGI through a series of mergers and acquisitions, Engage included assets from (among others) the original Engage, Accipiter, Flycast, Adsmart, Ad Knowledge, and MediaBridge. Last fall, as Engage was quickly divesting itself of business entities, offices, and personnel, Bluestreak (the company I cofounded) acquired the Ad Knowledge assets. Flycast and the rest of the company’s media business have been shed, and Engage has recast itself as a software company. Considering that a new, outstanding CEO is at the helm and (dare I say it) that the company’s actually hiring, some interesting times may be ahead.

So, what is Engage doing these days? I have to admit that I was completely out of the loop. As I mentioned above, Engage exited the media business — but it didn’t exit the ad-serving business. Though it does have a few other offerings, it turns out that the AdManager and AdBureau products are doing very well and posting record growth. Many customers stayed with Engage for the company’s site-side ad-serving business, and Engage has continued to build its customer base.

This was almost shocking to me, given that I follow this space as well as anyone and Engage had managed to remain below my radar. Things had looked very clear-cut to me; with the consolidation in the industry, it seemed like we were really looking at a very limited field made up of DoubleClick, 24/7 Real Media, and a handful of other players. That perception has shifted for me over the past few weeks. Engage looks ready to burst back onto the scene with its product offering more clearly and simply defined than ever. And I’ve been hearing rumblings of a number of other offerings about to enter the market as well, but I don’t have a lot of details on them yet.

Lingo Schmingo, English Schminglish

Another ClickZ columnist, who will go unnamed (hint: He shares this column with me), forwarded a disparaging flamemail from a disgruntled member of the alt.english.usage newsgroup. This person’s email was something to the effect of, “Where on earth did you learn English, and who gave you permission to murder it? ‘Creative’ and ‘metric’ are adjectives, not bloody nouns!”

Now, aside from the fact that the poster’s email address was on the risque side (and appeared to be spoofed), there was something so very wrong about this email and the associated newsgroup postings that I had to mention it in this forum. Apparently Jeremy’s column last week (oops, now I’ve done it) so infuriated some members of that newsgroup they had a long conversation about the fact that “journalists” in our field use too much lingo and bad English (never mind that we’re not journalists, but practitioners).

I have to laugh at the idea of either Jeremy or me being used as “global” illustrations of journalism or our articles being used to illustrate that “bad English” is killing our culture or some such nonsense (although it is a welcome departure from a more appropriate debate about advertising killing our culture). It really seemed to bother them that Jeremy used the term “creative” as a noun — which makes our entire industry guilty as sin, I suppose. I think I’ll start using “creative” as a verb in my next few articles and see if I can get this character to blow a wing nut. Maybe I can creative him with a few metrics of my own.

Virtual All Over Again

In a former life, I built glorious virtual reality worlds filled with high-end graphics that took ultra- expensive computers to run. It was a lot of fun, and I’ve been addicted to the world of 3-D graphics since. But I got very tired of building stuff that could only be viewed on $100,000-plus computers — hence my shift to the Web.

These days, I look out for any potential technologies that promise to bring interesting 3-D applications to the Web, and there finally seems to be some hope of that happening (years after the death of VRML). Sure, there are the established players, such as Viewpoint, but some smaller companies have recently entered the market with specific-use 3-D applications.

Last week I had an enlightening conversation with Dennis Crane, CEO of LifeFX. These folks have built a very interesting technology that puts a “virtual spokesmodel” onto a Web page. I’ve seen applications like this before, but what is interesting about LifeFX is that it has the most mature of the offerings I’ve seen.

The company uses an advanced system for modeling human physiology, and it draws on research about the way facial expressions enhance communication. The idea in a nutshell: auto- generate a 3-D replica of the model’s face from a photograph of a human face. Then take audio messages and synch the moving of the model to the playing of the message. The result is a compelling virtual presentation that can be tweaked to add any kind of emotional edge to the message that you’d like. Want a sympathetic user response? Have the model act in such a way to elicit that response. Want an excited user who is ready to act? Well, you get the picture…

Of course, there are obvious uses, such as putting a virtual salesperson right in front of visitors, but the company has also done some pretty advanced integration with database-driven applications and voice generation — basically building interactive “human” conversationalists.

Let’s all go out and creative our industry metrics higher, shall we?

We have the technology

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

As a kid, I wondered what the world would look like by 2000. We’re well past the benchmark millennium, even past 2001. We “should” have flying cars, regular flights to the moon, and holographic virtual reality. Well, not quite yet. But we do have some interesting new technologies that are not in development — they’re already reality. I have yet to see anyone take real advantage of them for marketing purposes.

DVD

DVD player and media sales have surpassed VHS. Most people I know have either bought a DVD player in the past few months or will buy one soon. I don’t just mean my single male friends — I mean most of the people I know.

Anyone who bought or rented the DVD version of “Shrek” knows that DVDs come with a massive amount of additional material on them. Some extras come in the form of interactive entertainment available only when you place the disk in your PC’s DVD-ROM drive, though some are accessible from the DVD player.

This opens up possibilities for advertising that (to my knowledge) haven’t been explored. For instance, as an advertiser, you could buy an unprecedented amount of space on a video or interactive environment to expand your brand.

I predict that we will see major advertisers buy space on DVDs for a variety of uses this year. Smart advertisers will build unique, custom content for this medium, creating standalone interactive games or exciting short films to showcase their products. BMW broke ground with Web-based short films. Imagine a similar concept with high-resolution, DVD-quality video. Or, a custom game that lets the customer play a movie tie-in game.

Video Games

Some advertisers create Web-based games. LifeSavers built a site to entice kids to play LifeSaver-themed games in a virtual environment. RadioShack built a series of high-end video games available for free through the MSN Gaming Zone. They drive interest in a line of radio-controlled toys.

Games will play out in our industry (pun intended). Product placements in video games are often free to advertisers — as game developers tend to request brands to include, not the other way around. Developers need established brands to increase a game’s realism. There’s no reason an enterprising brand manager seeking the right demographics couldn’t push her own brand to appropriate game developers.

Wireless

Ho-hum? I’ve reacted that way to wireless myself recently. Now, the space is about to change. Why?

My wife is one of three sisters. All three got new digital wireless phones over the past few months. At a recent family dinner, I posed some questions. First I asked, “Are there any circumstances in which you would be OK with getting ads on your wireless phone?” The initial reactions were violently negative: “No way!” Then I posed questions that got very different reactions.

“How about if you only got ads from companies you use — like Wal-Mart or eBay?” Knowing all three sisters are Wal-Mart and eBay freaks, I was confident of the answer I would get, “Oh, well, that’s different! I wouldn’t mind, as long as the ads were for things I’m interested in.”

I pushed. “Would you be willing to receive ads on your phone if you got paid with phone minutes for each one you listened to?” Another positive response. I finished with my secret weapon — the question I laughed at originally, the thing I pointed to as a “just plain stupid” idea for wireless not too long ago.

“Would you be OK if Starbucks sent you a coupon for a discounted cup of coffee when you were within one block of a Starbucks?” The answer? A resounding “Yes!”

PVR

TiVo, ReplayTV, Ultimate TV, and others broke ground. It’s time to grow these products into a maturity. I once believed this could only happen when cable companies integrated personal video recorders (PVRs) with digital cable.

A new player in the space, Moxi, is garnering much attention. Moxi plays directly to the cable companies as an infrastructure developer. The Moxi Media Center is basically a combined PVR, digital cable/satellite receiver, cable modem, and MP3 jukebox. One of the coolest things about this system is that you can hook it (wirelessly!) to as many as four TVs in your home.

The reason I mention PVRs (besides wanting to discuss Moxi) in this column is that they are currently viewed as a detriment to TV advertising. Users can fast-forward past the commercials. Let’s look at this from another angle.

What if you could provide a compelling piece of original creative content users want to watch — and what if you could sponsor that content exclusively through the PVR or cable company itself? You could contract with Moxi to download your content to a user’s PVR hard drive, then you could place a sponsorship icon in the menu of the channel guide. The user could click on your icon to play back the original content.

Perhaps this is an opportunity for traditional brands to push products in an infomercial-like way. The Web taught us that users want access to deeper information about products and services than a 30-second spot can provide. If you could offer the opportunity for a user to learn the benefits of your product/service in an extended format — outside of the 30-second spot — it would be valuable.

People may be more inclined to watch an infomercial-type ad on their PVRs. They don’t need to worry about what they’re “missing” on TV.

As with the Internet, you must build for the medium. Repurpose from other media, and you’ll get diluted results. Stretch your creative and media teams’ abilities by pushing innovative ways to use these new technologies. Find the value.

Searching for a hero

(Originally published September 19th, 2001) by Eric Picard

Confronted with the most horrendous act of mass murder on U.S. soil, I’ve been sitting here trying to figure out how to write an article on advertising technology. It’s tough for anyone who has to write for industry trade publications such as ClickZ, and writing this certainly has been hard for me. But to take any semblance of victory away from those who committed these terrorist acts, we have to move forward with living our lives.

So I’m determined to find something to take away from this tragedy, some lesson that we can hold close to our chests as a shield against terror and futility. And so very many lessons are turning up.

The Laguna Pueblo of the American Southwest believe that stories are medicine — a powerful type of prayer, ritual, or ceremony that can bring about change. If you ever want evidence of this, read the book “Ceremony” by Leslie Marmon Silko. It is an incredible novel that is also a healing ceremony. Many in this country could use a healing ceremony right now. I give the book to anyone I meet who is in need of emotional, physical, or spiritual healing.

One of the lessons I brought away from this book was that written and spoken stories can change the world around us. This is why there is great power in art, film, television, literature, even within the popular versions of all these things. And even perhaps within something as mundane as articles on advertising technology.

So let me tell you a few stories here. Maybe by sharing them we can work toward a few goals, including healing ourselves enough to move on with day-to-day life and, if we try hard enough, surpassing what passed for day-to-day life before this tragedy.

Have you all been following the stories about the heroes of Flight 93, the only hijacked flight not to reach its ground targets last Tuesday? The Associated Press reported that Flight 93 passenger Todd Beamer managed to call GTE operator Lisa Robinson, who told him about the other three planes hitting the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It wasn’t hard to realize that Flight 93 was part of the same scheme.

Beamer enlisted the help of the other passengers, and together they formed a plan to fight back. They realized that the only outcome of not fighting back was to die as victims and to let others — possibly hundreds or thousands of others — share their fate. But by taking a chance, they might save lives. Even if they lost their own, they might save lives on the ground.

The phone call lasted 13 minutes. The line was left open as passengers moved forward to overpower the terrorists. The last thing the operator heard was Beamer saying, “Let’s roll.” The plane crashed minutes later, killing all passengers and terrorists aboard. But killing nobody on the ground.

Lately I’ve been watching movies with heroic themes on digital cable. A few nights ago, I watched “Unbreakable” with Bruce Willis. He plays a security guard who is the sole survivor of a horrific train wreck and discovers that he is invulnerable. He has to make a decision whether to use this power to protect others or just continue to live his life as always. It’s a movie — you know how it turned out.

Tonight, I watched the Robert Redford classic “The Natural.” He plays a gifted baseball player who is shot by a serial killer and told he’ll never play again because of his injuries. As a middle-aged man, he returns to the sport as a rookie and helps the worst team in the league win the pennant, fighting off corrupt players and owners all the way.

What we live is real life, and things like that don’t happen… And terrorists don’t destroy the Twin Towers and damage the Pentagon with hijacked commercial airplanes… And unarmed airline passengers don’t rally and overpower armed terrorists to save the Capitol of the United States or the White House.

But this time real life was more amazing than fiction. And to me that says all the rules have changed.

My first degree in college was history. I remember a lecture by one of my professors about John F. Kennedy and how his love of spy novels changed the face of the world. One of Kennedy’s favorite authors was Ian Fleming, and then-unknown British secret agent James Bond was a favorite character. His passion soon became a national one, and today Sean Connery is revered because a president had (arguably) poor taste in literature. (I have to admit to loving to read those novels myself.)

Less known is that the belief that extreme training and incredibly difficult selection processes could build a super soldier drove the military under Kennedy to form the Navy SEALs and the Army Special Forces. Kennedy believed that a small, highly trained force could win a war with fewer resources and less loss of life.

This theory didn’t fully succeed in Vietnam. But that’s not to say there isn’t a place for this kind of thinking. Desert Storm is one example. Another took place last Tuesday. But Flight 93 has some other lessons for us: The spirit of good, honest, normal, everyday people is powerful and extraordinary without any special training. We saw it on the beaches of Normandy, and we saw it on Flight 93. And it’s a lesson we all need to take with us every day.

We all have the power. We all can make a difference every day. Our only job is to show up and give our best. Rise to meet the challenge put before you, and most of the time, you’ll win.

Now I’m going to do something difficult. I’m going to try, without sounding pathetic, to move this story forward and apply it to the online advertising industry. If I’m unsuccessful, please bear with me.

Our industry could stand to learn from the lessons of Flight 93. We have some of the best and brightest minds working on the problems of online advertising: extraordinary, everyday people who work hard and sacrifice and show up over and over again. They’re feeling downtrodden by what’s happening in our space, and the tragedies of last week aren’t going to help much — especially with most of the advertising world living just uptown from ground zero.

On Tuesday of last week, I was working with the rest of the Bluestreak team and Engage’s AdKnowledge team to put the finishing touches on our acquisition of their assets. As I sat in a conference call discussing minutiae of ad-server features, Annette Tonti, our CEO, interrupted the meeting to tell us that the planes that had hit the World Trade Center were commercial airliners and that both towers had just collapsed.

Tuesday was the day we signed the paperwork with Engage finalizing the deal to acquire Ad Knowledge. Amid the worst national tragedy in my lifetime, we were wrapped up in our own dramas, our own stories. When we realized the magnitude of what had happened, our focus went from microscopic to telescopic. Moments later, Bluestreak’s New York team dropped off the call to evacuate — and we haven’t been back to the offices since (we’re on East 11th Street, below the 14th Street emergency zone.)

Unbelievably, this tragedy has been slowly turning toward triumph. The nation is more unified than it’s ever been during my lifetime. Though it’s sad that it takes something like this, people look me in the eye as I pass them on the street. Strangers say hello as we approach each other. It’s made us all feel more human, I think.

There is talk of war. Vengeance. Payback. Maybe that’s what’s coming. But here’s what I walk away with, at least this week: We’re better than this thing that’s happened. And that applies to every aspect of our culture — including online advertising. We can rise above any trouble, any tragedy. We can prevail over these terrible times, and we can come back stronger and healthier than ever.

This isn’t just hype. We can’t let terrorists win: We can’t wallow in fear, anger, and hate. We have to find our own heroes. And many of them are sitting right on the other side of this computer screen reading my words right now. Let’s rise to the occasion. Let’s shake off the cobwebs, and let’s get this industry straightened out. There just isn’t room for mediocrity anymore. We owe it to make life count more now.

I’m sorry that this article was so long. I found it difficult to censor myself. I hope you’ve found some value in my words. Let’s do some good.

Editor’s note: For more on the impact of the September 11 attack, check the special section of internet.com’s E-Commerce/Marketing Channel, The Trade Center Disaster: Industry Response.

Oh say can you see Convergence?

(Originally published in ClickZ, May 2001) by Eric Picard

There’s one thing to say about getting sick… you get to watch a lot of television. I just spent a week on my couch, and while being sick is pretty lame — I was fortunate I’d had digital cable installed the week before. Or so it might seem.

I was underwhelmed by digital cable’s programming and video quality, touted as being “digital quality.” I may have been getting four Discovery channels, but I found that without buying premium service, the only other things of interest were Pay-Per-View and the Independent Film Channel. The video quality is compromised by high compression, and it isn’t as good as my old analog cable — at least when viewing the extra channels. But despite all that, all things considered digital cable has great features, and I won’t go back to the old way of doing things.

I’ve uncovered interesting issues at the convergence point of digital cable, interactive TV, game consoles, and broadband. That broadband Internet connections come through your cable company can open up some amazing opportunities you may not have considered before.

Last week’s illness has given me some time to reflect on the consumer experience. I’m a technology nut — as you might imagine. Before I buy a new computer, video camera, television, stereo, or other component, I research the heck out of it. Afterward, I wire all my stuff together and make them do neat things.

Of course, when someone like me intersects with a cable-TV company, some peculiar things can happen. In Rhode Island, where I live, we have Cox cable. About a month ago, I started coming to some of my conclusions when I was researching the various set-top boxes that Cox offers for digital cable. The first thing I did was call customer support and ask what manufacturer Cox used and which boxes were available to consumers installing digital cable.

Based on the rep’s response, I don’t think anyone had ever asked these questions before. But, as it turns out, she was able to get me the answers pretty quickly. The set-top boxes they use are manufactured by General Instruments, which was recently purchased by Motorola. The model Cox had most recently introduced was the DCT-2000 Interactive Digital Consumer Terminal.

Some of the highlights of this consumer box are pretty cool high-end home-theater-type features like S-Video connectors, wide-screen ratio compatibility, Dolby Digital (with an S/PDIF digital coax interface), and MPEG-2 Video. But there are some other interesting (if nascent) features as well. This device provides a two-way interface to the cable network and automatically downloads all the program listings on a regular basis. (Sound like TiVo?) It has parental lockout controls using the new television rating standards, and — although Cox isn’t supporting it yet — it can provide some access to Internet, email, and home shopping.

What is more interesting to me is that Motorola’s next version (which I uncovered during my search) —the DCT-5000 — looks even more interesting. This thing has all the features listed above but also includes a cable modem for use with either internal controls or pass-through for PC and IP telephony. It also offers USB, EE1394 firewire for HDTV interface, PCMICIA support, Smart Card support, a Parallel port (for printing), and the option of a hard drive using an integrated IDE connector. (Can you say personal video recorder [PVR]?)

The reason I go to this level of detail is because I’m paying my cable company $2 per month for my device. And think about it — how far away are we from the incorporation of TiVo, AOLTV, or UltimateTVinto these things? I’d happily pay a small fee every month for integrated PVR support!

That’s not too far off when you consider that AOL Time Warner owns most of the cable networks in the United States and that it has just signed on with Sony to offer Internet access, email, instant messenger, and Netscape to the PlayStation 2.

Now wait a second. Did anyone notice that Microsoft’s new Xbox gaming console, due out in September, includes an ethernet port for broadband access, and its UltimateTV includes WebTV? (These operating units were combined?) And doesn’t Microsoft have an interest in some cable networks as well?

That leaves us with the only nonaligned player in the space: TiVo. And I predict that TiVo is going to jump right into the fray through partnership or acquisition. It’s the only player that isn’t owned by a company affiliated with a cable network. And although many players invested in it, including AOL andNBC, TiVo has the flexibility to go to every other cable operator out there.

And TiVo may well be an interesting acquisition target for a company such as Excite@Home (if it weathers the current storm). Or Sony could take a closer look, considering that it’s one of the manufacturers using TiVo’s solution — which would leave Sony with a prime method of offering I-TV to its PlayStation 2.

This is going to be a very interesting time because many experts are saying that the home electronics system of the future is going to be built around these high-end video-game consoles. They’ll be the heart of the home network and the glue that holds your stereo, television, computer, and even your appliances together. Hey — it’s called “convergence,” baby! Get on the bandwagon!

I’ll sign off now — because this is starting to sound like a conspiracy-theory newsletter.

IAB Rich Media Task Force: One sided?

(Originally published in ClickZ, April 2001) by Eric Picard

As many of you may have heard, the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) has undergone some interesting changes lately. First, it changed its name to the Interactive Advertising Bureau. Second, it changed its focus to support the publisher community specifically — to the exclusion of all other parties.

Additionally, the IAB has formed the Rich Media Task Force to set industry-wide standards for rich media. The team is large and composed of some of the luminaries and unsung heroes of rich media in the industry — like Bettina Fischmann from CNET, Gary Hebert from Disney Interactive Group, Nate Elliot from DoubleClick, and Chuck Gafvert from AOL. This is a pretty smart group of people and I have the greatest respect for them.

But since the IAB has excluded rich media technology companies from participating — which is sort of like forming a group focused on fine cuisine but not allowing any chefs to participate in the forum — I’m writing an open letter to the task force here. After all, its members are about to set industry guidelines that profoundly affect my ability to feed my family, and I’m a little concerned.

Luckily, Emerging Interest seems to be stepping up to the plate with support for the rich media technology providers — but I won’t steal Bill’s thunder.

An Open Letter to the IAB Rich Media Task Force

While I have the greatest respect for many of the individuals participating in the task force, I have some concerns about the kind of standards that publishers might come up with, given the history of the industry. It would be tragic to take a step backward from where the existing rich media technology providers have gained acceptance so far.

As I said before in an earlier ClickZ Advertising Technology column, publishers have been too protective of the user experience for too long. They’ve taken feedback from early adopters and used that feedback as guidelines for the way the Web should work. Early adopters are the loudest group of users; they’re notoriously fickle and hard to please — and publishers have bought off on this group as their audience.

The Web is now a mass medium, and the expectations of the masses differ from those of the early adopters. Marketers and creative teams working with agencies want more flexibility to get their message across and to elicit a direct response. Rich media producers can provide them with this need without alienating users.

If the IAB Rich Media Task Force is hoping to make a real difference, it is time to step up to the plate and knock the ball out of the park. Make a bold statement with these standards — don’t just agree to a set of minimum standards that are more prohibitive than the widely accepted rich media formats today. As an industry, we should be forging ahead, not lagging behind.

This group has a powerful opportunity. Advertisers have complained repeatedly about the restrictions of online advertising. Let’s take this chance to challenge and change that mindset.

Here are my general recommendations for all formats:

 

  • Make sure your guidelines are for interactive advertising. Don’t use television models to restrict these ads. It has much less to do with limiting the time an ad runs than capturing interactions with users. Restricting run times will actually frustrate and anger users who are interacting with an ad — and user interaction is the goal of the medium.
  • Remove loop limits. This is the most prohibitive and most outdated of all requirements that are widely accepted. The biggest concern about looping animations is that continuously looping animations are annoying. Perhaps they annoy the members of this forum as users — mainly made up of early adopters, like me — but you are not the target audience of your customers (the advertiser). And in most cases, neither are the very vocal early adopters who complain about continuous looping.
  • Allow audio upon mouseover of rich media ads. Unsolicited audio is generally prohibited, which I agree with in principle. BUT, if a user rolls over an ad, and a sound plays, that’s a different experience.
  • Don’t limit file size. The metrics used by publishers to allow or disallow content are not correct for the medium. File size is a relative thing when discussing rich media because most technologies have built-in mechanisms to address this issue. A more proper metric would be something like this: an initial file load of 15K, total file load per page of 50K — unless content streams.
  • Permit advanced technology. Flash can be built to stream in content. Audio and video are virtually always streaming. Enliven uses the built-in streaming of Director in its standard product and can make use of Flash streaming in its Flash products.
  • Sequential or polite loading. Bluestreak’s Java technology uses a sequential loading methodology with load priorities — never overloading the user’s connection with too much of a content dump. This doesn’t slow down the page load by competing with the page content. Unicastmakes use of the “polite download” of its interstitial technology, which loads content only when a user’s connection is free. The savvy technologists in this industry will continue to innovate new ways of getting more content to users without slowing down the connection.
  • Bandwidth detection. Reward technologies like bandwidth detection by loosening restrictions for those who employ it. Additionally, publishers should start enabling their ad servers with bandwidth-detection technology to alleviate some of these issues.

Respectfully,

Eric Picard