Rich Media Makes Poor Marketers

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In their efforts to make the Web more entertaining, site developers often leave the customer behind.


At a transactional site, where the goal is presumably to move merchandise, this oversight is measured in lost dollars.


Data gathered from more than 1 million consumer interactions during HotSocket's sales campaigns this summer revealed a major gap between the promise of rich media and the user experience. This gap results in broken connections, crashed systems, agonizingly slow load times and lost sales.


Rich media - animated Flash, Shockwave and Java applets that spice up a Web page - give site designers the tools to present the user with sound and moving images within the Web page.


This rich animation is limited by such factors as the viewer's hardware, software, bandwidth and patience. When confronted with a rich-media presentation, consumers seem more likely to hit the "back" button than to move forward to complete a sale or register at a transactional site. If your goal is to get consumers to consider and then accept your offer, it may pay to take a hard look at the direction of your Web development. Measured as a return on investment, rich media has yet to deliver the goods.


To measure the effectiveness of rich media, let's first put it into the context of a Web marketer's costs and performance levers. Most of the investment made to close sales on the Web is not spent on development at all. It's spent on media - measured as the cost of acquiring each new customer.


Ameritrade, for example, recently revealed that it spends $445 to acquire each new online customer, a number consistent with those of most online brokerages. Peter Neupert, chief executive of drugstore.com, reports that his firm spent $63 to acquire each new customer in the third quarter and that he expects this cost to rise.


Within the past couple of months, Levi's was experimenting with rich media on its Web site and reportedly encountered serious bandwidth-related consumer complaints. The company acknowledged that it spent upward of $200 to acquire each new sale and this month abandoned its Web efforts altogether.


To manage these costs, Web marketers must measure the cost of media and the rate of converting site visitors into buyers. Most Web marketers focus on where banners and sponsorships are placed and which banners bring visitors to the site.


In focusing on these things, marketers cede the Web page to site developers. This is a mistake. Marketers give away the sales levers that make the most impact and focus to a relative subordinate.


According to HotSocket data, media source has not been the biggest predictor of consumer response, especially when adjusted for relative media cost. Instead, we've found that each sale is driven by a successful combination of a handful of levers, of which only one is the media source. Factors that outweigh source in determining consumer response include offer and presentation.


The offer consists of the actual product or service presented to consumers, its price, consumer hook, detail of the benefits and description. It often includes an upsell, or "free gift" opportunity. This basic marketing skill far outweighs any other factor in converting visitors to buyers.


Within individual campaigns with multiple offers, we're seeing the right offer perform six times better than the average.


The presentation consists of an offer's look and feel, graphic images and load time on a consumer's computer screen. Appearance matters, so it would seem that rich media could raise effectiveness. Unfortunately, we're finding exactly the opposite. In campaigns across well-branded and relatively unknown brands, the inclusion of animated graphics depressed response.


A campaign for BusinessWeek received results from text-only pages that were 48 percent better than from pages displaying a BusinessWeek illustration.


The data suggests that Web marketers who use rich media effectively limit their reach to those Internet users who have both the capacity and patience to sit and wait for the animation. According to StatMarket, San Diego, 68 percent of Web users are capable of viewing Flash animations. The rest, fully one-third of Web users, will be asked to download an application when visiting a Flash-enabled site. With plenty of basic marketing issues to overcome to complete a sale, the last thing a Web marketer needs is a further distraction from the offer.


Given that the actual statistics are so overwhelmingly negative, why, then, are so many sites using rich media? To those who have no trouble viewing it, rich media makes a site look professional. Unfortunately, this credibility is bought at the expense of usability - and ultimately at the expense of profits.


Marketers can learn the hard way, like the folks at SonicNet who last year launched a rich-media site with great fanfare and then months later quietly replaced it with a simple home page with only a link to the rich-media excitement. Alternatively, marketers can look to the real pros in retail on the Web, such as Amazon.com, which despite vast resources, focuses on the user experience. The best Web marketers measure themselves not by technical mastery, but by results.

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