Rich Media Doesn't Work for All Campaigns

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As an advertiser, you've no doubt read debates lately about the value of rich media. It can be hard to determine whether upgrading your online advertising from animated GIFs to rich media is worthwhile.


It also can be daunting even to know how to begin. If you're considering your first foray into rich media, it's important to familiarize yourself with the pros and cons.


First, let's re-view the benefits:


• Clicks. Rich media banners tend to generate higher click-through rates than animated GIF banners. Click-throughs are still the ultimate goal of many interactive advertisers, as well as the primary yardstick for measuring effectiveness. Because it allows banners to include audio or video, drop-down menus or expanded real estate, rich media gives advertisers the ability to say more about their products or services, giving viewers more reasons to click through.


• Branding. Similarly, the eye-catching and ear-catching motion and sound of rich media, as well as viewers being able to interact within the banner, mean that rich media ads often have a bigger branding impact than do animated GIFs. To my knowledge, no independent study has been done comparing the branding effect of rich media vs. animated GIFs, but it stands to reason that if more people are clicking through, more people are noticing the ad and remembering the advertiser.


• Measurability. Most types of rich media banners allow the advertiser to measure more than just impressions and click-throughs. Tracking how many viewers click within a banner, fill out a form in the banner, play a game or even roll their mouse over the banner, can give advertisers much more -- pardon the pun -- rich data with which to evaluate and improve their campaigns over time.


The benefits of rich media are undeniable. But there are drawbacks:


• Limited reach. Not every Web user can view rich media, partly because of bandwidth issues (yes, there are still people using 28.8 modems), and partly because of some people's reluctance to download plug-ins such as RealAudio or Flash. Of course, cable modems and DSL lines are becoming more common, as are browsers with built-in plug-ins. So this problem will probably become less prevalent in time, but it's still something to be aware of in 2000.


• Expense. It can cost as much as 10 times more to produce a rich media banner than an animated GIF, since rich media is much more complex. And you'll still have to produce an animated GIF version of your ads to be served to the folks that can't view rich media, so that's another expense.


Most publishers do not charge an additional cost to run rich media creative, but many industry experts caution that it's only a matter of time before they do. It can be compared to charging more for a four-color bleed print ad than a black-and-white non-bleed ad.


• Limited talent. Though more designers and programmers are jumping on the rich media bandwagon, it's still a challenge to find a firm or individual that does quality design, can handle the technical end and understands crafting a marketing message. It's easy to find people who are eager to learn and want you to be their first guinea pig, but it's difficult to find talent that has experience in the various forms of rich media. If you find a design firm or freelancer that fits the bill, be prepared to pay for the expertise.


• Publisher problems. The complex technical aspects of rich media mean that it has the potential to wreak havoc when a publisher's site loads on the viewer's browser. Most of the larger publisher sites are pretty far down the learning curve in terms of working out the bugs with rich media, but there are many sites accepting rich media advertising that aren't prepared to do so.


Don't be surprised if you encounter enthusiastic media sales representatives that give you the site's technical specifications, only to find -- after you've spent time and money developing ads that meet their specs -- that the site can't run your ads after all. Don't be surprised if a publisher tells you it accepts rich media, as long as the file size is 15k or less (which is nearly impossible to produce).


Companies such as Enliven and Bluestreak can alleviate some of this pain. They are turnkey services that design, program and serve up rich media banners for you. But, once again, there is no free lunch -- their services can be costly. And they will supply you with statistics showing how many impressions they served up, which are pretty much guaranteed not to match the statistics of the publishers' sites that are invoicing you. Reconciling these figures and determining how many impressions to pay the publisher for is up to you.


Is it all gloom and doom? Not at all. Rich media is particularly effective when you're advertising a considered purchase. The added expense of using rich media can make the cost per acquisition for many e-commerce site's products, such as books or software, unacceptably high. But if you're marketing a high-ticket item that normally needs a few steps in the sales process, rich media can help you engage your prospect, give him the information needed to move forward and generate qualified leads. In addition, the normally higher selling price for these types of products usually correlates with a higher acceptable cost per acquisition, meaning that rich media can be affordable and effective for advertising considered purchase-type goods.


Should advertisers and their agencies jump onto the rich media bandwagon now, or wait until costs come down, designers have more experience, and publishers have their act together? My vote is to squeeze your eyes shut and dive right in, right now. At the rate that rich media (and i-marketing in general) is changing, if you don't get up to speed now, you'll get run over later.


It's my prediction that in a year from now, we won't even use the term "rich media" because virtually all banner advertising will use emerging technologies to be increasingly interactive. Just be sure to keep the above drawbacks in mind so you're not blindsided. On second thought, squeeze one eye shut and keep the other one focused firmly on the future.
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