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*Enliven, Thinking Media Question Rich Media 'First'

Thinking Media Corp. hotly contested assertions made by Excite@Home this week that the Internet media firm's Enliven unit developed the first database-connected banner ads whose content can be built in real time.

Don Westrich, director of business development at Thinking Media, New York, said the transactional banner company has been building Net ads with the same capabilities since 1997.

“Welcome to the club,” Westrich said. “It's nice to know that [Enliven has] seen the light. We've been doing it for two years.”

Rich media banners have become valued advertising tools as Web surfers — stupefied by the ubiquity of conventional, static Web banners — have largely stopped clicking on them. Regular banners typically persuade only about 0.5 percent of viewers to click through, while rich media banners with sound, 3-D graphics or transaction capabilities get up to 15 percent of Web users to interact with them in some way.

Rich media banners connected to a database let advertisers receive live stock quotes or airline fares, for example, and also let marketers update their data with new consumer information such as membership registrations.

Market leader Enliven said this week in a prepared statement that it “now offers the industry's first real-time ad content construction, advanced two-way live database access and faster, smoother ad display.”

When told that Thinking Media questioned the statement's truthfulness, Enliven public relations manager Leigh Dally said the “first” refers only to real-time ad content construction, not to two-way database connections. Real-time ads are customized for each consumer based on how he interacts with a site, his connection speed or demographic information available on him.

“We feel that we're the first to actually deploy viable working campaigns and that we have the first complete working solution,” Dally said. “The only reason we say that is because we haven't seen anyone else actually deploy campaigns … using a live connectivity capability.”

But according to Westrich, Enliven isn't first to offer content that is built on the fly, either.

“Again, this is exactly what we can do and we've been doing it from the beginning,” he said. “Dynamically created advertising? That's exactly what we can do.” Thinking Media has banners that load the way they function and the data they deliver in real time, he said.

However, Thinking Media currently is not running any banners with live database hookups. Executives from Enliven told DM News this month that they doubted Thinking Media's ability to make the banners work. Enliven lured at least one customer — online retailer Onsale.com — away from Thinking Media when the technology failed, an Enliven spokeswoman said.

Westrich conceded that Thinking Media “did not handle the Onsale relationship very well” but said it collapsed for customer service reasons rather than technological ones. He cited several database-connected banners the company has successfully run over the last two years for Quote.com, CDnow Inc. and other clients.

Much is at stake in the rich media banner market. Forrester Research, Cambridge, MA, expects rich media to continue growing as a portion of overall online advertising (though numbers for 1999 appear to be falling short of last year's forecasts) and the market players all want to be the standard for the industry.

Advertisers will realize that rich media banners not only attract customers more effectively but sometimes improve transactions in other ways, such as giving consumers better customer service, said Forrester analyst Jim Nail.

“With applications like being able to check real-time availability of inventory, that provides something that's going to be useful to the buyer and improves their experience with that purchase,” Nail said. “And the experience that people have online is really the key thing about advertising online.”

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