Rich Media's a Tool, Not a Gimmick
Whenever I talk or write about rich-media advertising, I start by offering my definition of what it is so we're all on the same page. Rich-media advertising allows for interactivity between the user and the ad, a more detailed message than a standard animated GIF banner, or both.
As you can see, this definition covers a number of online advertising formats. RealAudio, Enliven, Java ads, Flash banners, AudioBase, Unicast Superstitials, Comet Cursors and dozens of other formats comprise the world of rich-media advertising. Many respectable professionals in online advertising still lump everything together when they refer to rich media, even though each format has its own merits and weaknesses.
Understanding that there are many different formats that can enhance your ability to present your advertising message is the first step in planning an ad campaign. Each format has its strengths and weaknesses - from a technology and an advertising application perspective.
The second step is to ask, "Why do I want to use this format?" If your answer is something along the lines of "I don't know what else to do to increase my response rates," then you're going about this all wrong. Those who want to use rich media because it allows them to communicate more effectively will be more successful than those who use it for its own sake.
For example, I once recommended using RealAudio banners for a client who had a complex product with an even more complex ordering process. We recommended that RealAudio be used to provide a voice-over for the landing page. This gave us an opportunity to provide a deeper message - one that would alleviate some of the confusion consumers had been experiencing. In other words, we didn't just recommend it because it was cool. The results? We tripled conversion rates.
Once you've resolved to approach a specific rich-media format with the purest possible intentions, the next step is to avoid unnecessary frustration by accepting a few things before the campaign starts. We call these simple facts the "Four Fundamental Truths of Cutting-Edge Online Advertising."
The first truth is that this is an imperfect medium. I cannot expect that my entire campaign will launch without glitches. Everything sounds so simple when the sales rep explains it, but there are a lot of technical complexities to using some rich-media formats. If you've never planned such a campaign before, trust me - something goofy always happens. Selected ad venues will claim excessive hardship in getting your ads running. Anti-advertising wackos running Lynx 1.1 will e-mail you to complain that you've crashed their browser. Just don't let it bend you out of shape.
Second, any rich-media format is only as good as the additional effectiveness it brings. Effectiveness is gauged by the goals you set for your ad campaign prior to running it. You need to have effectiveness metrics set up to be able to tell if using rich media has added to the effectiveness of your advertising. If you add additional detail or interactivity to your advertising and don't notice an immediate boost in effectiveness, something is wrong. And if using rich media increases effectiveness, you need to know by how much to justify the additional expense of enhancing your ads.
Third, the technical capabilities are different for each user. My T1 connection at work is not the norm. Same goes for my 500 MHz Pentium III with 256 MB of RAM. One of my best friends surfs the Web with a palmtop computer running NeXT with a 14.4K modem. He's another extreme. Then there's my mom who simply has an outdated machine with a similarly disadvantaged dial-up connection.
The point is that not everyone has the same machine, and certainly not everyone has a high-speed connection. We owe it to people to take whatever precautions we can to avoid taking away from their Web exper-ience. Using sniffer scripts to determine connection speed and the presence of any necessary hardware or software can help you make sure that low-bandwith or low-tech users receive appropriate ads.
And fourth, your brand must be protected at all costs - even if it means shutting down the campaign and taking some heat for it. If you're trying a new, cutting-edge format for enhancing your message, you will likely get some feedback from your Web audience. Listen and respond to this feedback with the knowledge that once you tick somebody off, it's tough to get another shot at their business. 'Nuff said.