Rich Media: White Knight or Only the Beginning?

Rich media, with its television-like vitality, may be considered online advertising's white knight in some quarters. But despite tentative steps in the right direction, panelists at MediaPost's Forecast 2004 last Thursday (9/25) acknowledged that rich media ad mavens have barely tapped the potential of the format - and won't fully do so until publishers, marketers and agencies are able to sort through a host of issues currently inhibiting its growth.

Panel moderator Nate Elliott, an associate analyst at Jupiter Research, pointed to some of his company's recent findings to illustrate just how far rich media has to go. While it is growing at a faster rate than just about any other type of online ad, rich media will still only comprise 11% of online ad spending in 2004 (the company projects this figure to surge to 25% in 2008). Similarly, even though advertisers are dedicating more in the way of resources to rich media campaigns, 46% spent no money on them in 2003.

"[The ads] pop up, they fly in - we must make the [rich media] experience better," said TBWA\Chiat\Day's interactive creative director Doug Jaeger. Added Edward Kim, interactive media manager in Unilever's media services division: "Look at TV or print - they use the [ad] format to tell a story. On the Internet, I'm not sure we do that. It's harder to make that story come to life."

In a wide-ranging discussion, the panelists agreed that the most pressing concern remains the absence of a standardized rich media format and ad size. This lack of standardization - Doug Knopper, DoubleClick's vice president and general manager of advertiser, agency and publisher solutions, estimated that there are 11,000 different ad sizes - leads to any number of problems, ranging from consumer confusion to Windows/Mac compatibility issues.

While nobody wants to put rich media in a box - "one of the beauties of the medium is its variation," Knopper said - the wild disparities from one ad to the next may be to blame for marketers' hesitancy to devote more resources to the rich media format. The result is what Unicast chairman and chief executive officer Dick Hopple calls "chaos... publishers are afraid to say no [to would-be advertisers], agencies are confused, companies are frustrated." In fact, the panelists suggested that Internet advertisers might take a cue from supposedly "mature" mediums. "You buy a Vogue not for the content, but for the ads. Why can't the Internet be like that?" Jaeger asked, witheringly describing many web ads as "crappy slivers on the side [of the screen]."

The panelists came up empty on potential solutions to the standardization issue, other than stating the obvious: that nothing is likely to change until publishers, marketers and agencies work together to create industry-wide standards. But given the myriad of competing agendas, this probably won't happen anytime soon.

While Unicast is one of the leaders in the rich media space, even Hopple acknowledged that the particular format of online ads shouldn't be a primary concern to marketers. "I doubt there's anybody in this room who cares about technology," he argued. "You care about what you can run." Representing the agency world, Jaeger largely agreed with that assessment. "There are so many variables for a creative person in terms of technology," he explained. "A lot of these so-called technologies are just another way to deploy Flash. Some of them don't work on Macs. It [often] comes down to who you've used more often, who's been more consistent."

Jaeger added that online ad format is less important to him than the overall creative. "If there's crappy creative and [the campaign] doesn't work, you don't make that buy again." Kim agreed: "Technology is great, but creativity has to lead the way."

Kim, the lone representative of a consumer-goods behemoth on the panel, noted the obvious interest big-name marketers have in the rich media debate. For such companies, however, he said all online advertising was ultimately about the results. "It doesn't matter which technology our agency uses - just come back to us with the best creative campaign," he said. "Provide me with solutions that will work today."

Even after concerns about formatting are resolved, the inevitable questions about the effectiveness of rich media ads will remain. Simply put, the industry remains relatively clueless about how to measure them. The problem isn't unique to rich media, of course. Banner ads, for example, are generally measured in terms of the number of page views, but such a metric tells little more than the number of users that view a given web page; it says nothing about interaction with the ad or whether it was actually seen.

Kim framed the measurement debate in terms of overarching goals. Online marketers "need to have a better understanding of campaign objectives" before their ads can accurately be measured, he said. "We have to get everyone thinking about the ultimate goal." He'd also like to see those results presented in a more accessible and condensed manner. "At the end of the day, all I want is one report," he sighed. "I want my agency to come back to us and say 'the campaign is working.' Ease of use - that's all."

A final concern, frequency control, was addressed by the panelists in response to a query from a member of the audience. In the U.K., Knopper noted, online ads are limited to one every 30 minutes. "The industry needs to adopt standards," Knopper said. "We're liable to piss off the entire [online] community right now."

Hopple, however, noted that agencies were savvy enough to draw the line years ago when television networks proposed increasing the number of commercials per hour. "They said 'no, that's clutter.'" Should frequency become a major issue, he believes agencies would again serve as the voice of restraint.