Profit From Interactive Events

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The Internet extends new communication and sales channels for companies to reach an ever-expanding connected audience. In addition to Web pages and e-mail, businesses can now take advantage of Webcasts and interactive events that use streaming media.


Video and audio served over the Web can be used to solicit, inform, motivate and entertain. Streaming applications include corporate communications, advertising, public relations, training, distance learning, e-commerce, customer service, merchandising and entertainment.


Streaming media Webcasts digitize and compress audio and video into an electronic format that can be more efficiently stored, served and viewed over the Internet. Rather than requiring viewers to take the time to download whole media files, streaming media enables viewers to readily view and listen as their media players receive, decompress and buffer a steady stream of compressed multimedia data requested from a media server.


Once limited by the lack of standards and poor Web connections, current streaming adoption is supported by computer systems with popular media players (provided by Microsoft, RealNetworks and Apple), sufficient memory, powerful video cards, ubiquitous Internet access and specialized content delivery networks.


For any streaming application to achieve desired results, the marketing professional needs to define the overriding objectives and critical success factors. The operational expenses associated with streaming media, especially live video, can comprise a substantial part of a project's total budget. Companies need to consider many operational costs, including how to produce the media content (new or repurposed, archived or live), encoding the media content according to which media player and Web connection rates that their audience will use, how long the media will be available on the Web and the requirements to deliver the media content.


Again, while these operational costs must be calculated, they do not have the greatest effect on whether goals are achieved.


The most significant components to any successful streaming application, be it video-on-demand for archived video or a live Webcast, are soliciting and securing the audience; engaging the audience during the streaming session to keep the audience involved; serving supplemental information and transaction opportunities in context with what is being viewed; and implementing reporting mechanisms to gauge audience reception, retention and participation.


Operational costs aside, what good is such an event or program if no one watches? It becomes an expensive exercise, to say the least. Planning, therefore, is essential to understanding the intended audience and how to reach that audience.


Online solicitation (posting a notice of the availability of a video or audio stream) and e-mail are two popular means to raise awareness. This is important for notifying employees, such as for an e-learning application, or for customers and prospects for a customer service application. Just as one conducts research, makes assumptions and determines cost per acquisition for other direct response or event solicitation projects, so should an effort be placed on attracting the target audience to the streaming media.


This may require cookies and other technical means to record user acceptance of video-on-demand applications. For live Webcasts, registration Web pages as well as e-mail event reminders and automated referral systems can be employed.


Once a user has chosen to view or listen to any media content, captivating him is key to keeping him on the site. If you gain great initial acceptance and lose your audience shortly after the content is served, then your application has failed.


You need to determine the type of interactivity best served with the media content. If you are presenting merchandise through video-on-demand, it would make sense to allow the viewer to take advantage of additional Web content and applications associated with the merchandise. This might include presenting feature highlights, offering resellers located closest to the viewer, the ability to talk with a live customer service representative, the means to post a question and, especially, the ability to purchase the merchandise.


If streaming media is used during a press conference, it makes sense to show presentation slides during the conference, offer online questions and answers and deliver links to related online content.


Participation is key to keeping the user on the site long enough to deliver a message or gain a response. Not only is content king, but also, more often, context is king. The ability to present additional information or, more importantly, purchase capabilities that are in context with what the viewer is listening to or watching, can increase response potential.


Most marketers might insert promotional content just prior to or following a session or surround the media with static supplemental information and advertising. It also is possible to enable the marketer to serve supplemental information and transaction options synchronized with the media content itself. While a person listens to a song, for example, present the opportunity to purchase the compact disc, see related material by the artist, explore related artists and rank the song. These are all ways to build the e-commerce value of a site and increase the return on investment.


As with any campaign, gauging audience acceptance and subsequent transactions associated with the streaming application is paramount. The caveat, "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it," stands true with streaming Webcast. Milestones and projected returns should be determined prior to employing any streaming application. Reporting mechanisms should be in place to ensure that expenditures meet target objectives. In addition, such feedback can be used to enhance future deployment of applications.


Such online content can be a fantastic tool to inform, entertain, research and sell. By investing in interactive applications and planning activities, marketing professionals can help bring greater return on streaming investments.


• Scott Gordon is vice president of marketing at SeeItFirst Inc., Fremont, CA. Reach him at sgordon@seeitfirst.com.
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