Rich Media: Coming to a Database Near You

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New York -- Two Web advertising disciplines that hold great promise but have yet to pay off -- rich media and online profiling -- tied their fortunes together in announcements earlier this month at the @d:tech online advertising conference.


Internet access provider Excite@Home announced TrueMatch, a program the company claims will assemble in real time modular rich-media ads -- those with 3-D graphics, audio and/or transactional capabilities -- and deliver them to Web surfers according to information in subsidiary MatchLogic's database of 72 million profiles.


Database concern Engage Technologies, Inc., Andover, MA, and rich-media company Unicast Communications, New York, announced they are teaming up to deliver profile-driven superstitials -- rich media ads that pop up while Web pages load -- to people based on information in the Engage Knowledge database of 35 million profiles.


Advertisers have long called for better graphical capabilities on the Web to make their offerings more appealing, and more precise targeting to make their buys more efficient. While regular banners typically persuade only about 0.5 percent of viewers to click through, rich media ads get up to 15 percent of Web users to interact with them in some way.


But though many are pushing for rich media to become the industry standard, the technology still has detractors who point out that although it increases response rates, it also tends to attract unqualified prospects.


"Rich media is great for increasing clicks, but terrible for conversion rates," said Jay Schwedelson, corporate vice president of media placement firm WebConnect, Boca Raton, FL.


However, tying rich-media delivery to a profiles database may help qualify prospects. Online profiling, where a company places cookies in users' hard drives and records their clicking behavior in a database, is touted by proponents as a way to monitor people's interests anonymously and deliver targeted advertising without compromising their privacy.


Also, rich-media ads connected to a database can let advertisers deliver live stock quotes or airline fares, for example, or let marketers update their data with new consumer information such as membership registrations.


Excite@Home's rich-media/profiles database initiative is available now. Engage and Unicast claim theirs will be ready early next year.


Besides timing, the main difference between the two announcements is that Excite@Home claims TrueMatch will deliver ads assembled dynamically, where Unicast and Engage apparently have no such plans.


"The difference is targeted advertising in general vs. dynamic ad generation," said Scott Kliger, vice president of advertising technology, Excite@Home, Waltham, MA.


Under the TrueMatch program, online campaigners can deliver ads pieced together according to any pre-selected combination of three attributes from the following: age, education, gender, income, marital status, time of day, geography and presence of children.


For example, the same GM ad may show a sports utility vehicle with mountains in the background to a woman in California with children, and a pick-up truck with sage brush to a single male Texan. The program allows for up to 16 creative combinations.


TrueMatch aims to enhance the contextual ad targeting that Excite@Home's marketing clients already use rather than replace it, said Susan Bratton, vice president of market development. "You want every competitive advantage you can get."


Meanwhile, if Engage and Unicast would want to deliver database-connected ads whose content can be built in real time, Thinking Media -- creator of e-commerce enabled ActiveAds -- is the only rich-media company other than Excite@Home that has said it offers the capability.


Don Westrich, director of business development at Thinking Media, New York, declined to say whether his firm has been talking to Engage or Unicast.


"We have a good relationship with Unicast [and] We're not ignorant of the implications of profiling," he said.


Indeed, Thinking Media this month unveiled Sonata, a software add-on to its ActiveAds that features "database-neutral architecture that can be driven by information such as profiling," according to Westrich.


Thinking Media also claims Sonata can read bandwidth and tailor file sizes according to the receiving device's capabilities: small files to a cell phone, larger files to a desktop PC or interactive television.


"As the Net moves to new devices, getting the right message in the right environment will be critical," said Westrich.


In any case, widespread use of rich media and profile-based targeting -- tied together or not -- is still a long way off.


The vast majority of online advertising is targeted by site content, if at all. And rich media still accounts for less than 5 percent of online advertising for a variety of reasons. Creating and delivering the ads takes a lot of work and collaboration, and many sites either hesitate to accept them for fear they will irritate visitors, or they make advertisers jump through too many hoops for rich media to be worthwhile.


"It's going to be another 12 to 18 months before we see if this pays off," said Jim Nail, senior analyst, Forrester Research, Cambridge, MA.
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