View From a Turtle's Back

The ancient Chinese used to divine the future and comprehend the complexity of the present by studying the cracks on the back of a tortoise shell. Today we do it by looking at statistics. It is difficult to say which provides the most clarity.

I've been thinking about this because I've been obsessing over some statistics that have been running in my Emerging Interest newsletter and site. Starting this month we've been archiving the weekly totals of Macromedia Flash advertising impressions, including the month of August in aggregate, and while it certainly doesn't cover every form of rich media, it does give a general sense of what is going on in the rich media industry. Or does it? In many ways it raises more questions than answers.

The one stat I've been chewing over the past few days is in some ways the most difficult to contemplate: the week of Sept 10-16. I've read the news reports like everyone else: advertisers pulling ads, websites stripping out ads and rich media to make their pages load faster. I truly expected to see abysmal impression numbers. And yet the number of Flash advertising impressions actually went up by 21% from the week before. In fact, that week represented more than one third of the total August impressions combined. Why?



My first thought was that it was caused by a combination of high traffic numbers and house ads. Certainly news and financial sites were experiencing dramatic increases in traffic. But the top rated site for Flash banners that week was, a fantasy sports site. Sandbox was also the top rated site the week before but during crisis week it generated twice the number of Flash impressions as the week before. Were people flocking to fantasy sports sites to take their minds off of the reality on their TV screens?

I also expected to see a lot of house banners and certainly Sandbox was also one of the big advertisers during the week of Sept 10-16, indicating that a lot of their traffic was generating in-house Flash banners impressions. But if you strip out the obvious house ads from the weekly totals, the overall impression numbers were still over 17% higher than the week before.

Real advertisers were advertising: Keycorp, Uniliver, Marriott, Ford, IBM, Revlon... even the US Army, whose impressions went up 35% during the crisis week. And quite honestly, I don't have an explanation. All I can do is look at the statistics and wonder why. A cracked turtle shell would have imparted as much wisdom.

Other data that is not as hard to understand but is still interesting concerns Yahoo!. Yahoo! burned the doors down on Flash advertising impressions in August with 121 million impressions (or five times its nearest competitor), Yet it doesn't even show up in the statistics in September. One campaign from American Airlines running on Yahoo! represented over one quarter of the entire Flash impressions generated in August, showing how dependent rich media can be on a small number of advertisers.

And while large rectangles were the most popular form of Flash advertising in August (obviously due to the American Airlines buy), the standard banner is, in general, at the top of the list in popularity. After you leave the standard banner, there seems to be little consistency on Flash ad unit sizes. Large Rectangular Pop-ups, for instance, are in third place in August and represent 7% of the all the ad units delivered. By crisis week, however, these units had dropped to 12 place and 2% of the ad units delivered.

From an industry standpoint, Web Media is the big winner for both crisis week and the week before the WTC disaster, indicating a number of house ads impressions were being generated. But Financial Services Flash impressions were hot too, nearly tripling during the WTC disaster week. The reason? Credit card ads. It seems that while branding campaigns in all media were undercover during the crisis, direct marketing campaigns, at least in Flash, increased dramatically. And I guess that makes as much sense as anything that week.

-- Bill McCloskey is Founder and CEO of Emerging Interest, an organization dedicated to educating the Internet advertising and marketing industry about rich media and other emerging technologies.

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