Commentary

All Singing, All Dancing

In Web years it seems like a lifetime ago that all of us suffered those annoying animated overlays running, crashing, driving across our displays. I recall one unit for a video game site that caused an earthquake on the screen, as a character broke through the home page. On a sport site, a football bulleted its way toward me, creating virtual cracks on my display. Now there's a way for a brand to cozy up to consumers -- pretend to pulverize their $600 monitor. Oh, those were the days, when Web surfing truly was a Forrest Gump adventure. Open a Web site and you never knew what you were going to get. They were cool creative ideas for about three minutes (again, five seconds by the Web clock). I know we always ask for more innovative creative dedicated to the Web...but sometime we don't really mean it.

And so when PointRoll and Millennial Media announced rich media units for smart phones at CTIA this week, I was braced for the worst. I really don't want Audis taking two passes across my iPhone before parking at an enticing come-hither angle in the middle of the screen. But my first encounters with the new units from both companies were positive, suggesting where mobile advertising can better serve the consumer.

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When rich media makes the ad and content experience come together rather than increase intrusiveness, then it moves in the right direction. While I am not a big fan of the drab editorial presentation at NYTimes.com's iPhone application (and it is hellishly sluggish), I do like the simple integration of the ad units. The landing page for the ad remains within the interface of the applications, with an obvious path to resuming your article experience. This is the kind of seamless ad messaging that some oversized rich media units tried to establish years ago online when they allowed deep interactivity within the unit.

Personally, I think the click-through remains an unnatural vehicle of digital display advertising. Even attractive and relevant ads give me pause before clicking, because I hesitate to interrupt the editorial I came for. If an advertiser somehow can convey the enticing information within the frame of the host content, I think it benefits me, the publisher and the advertiser. I get to slip back to my reading or viewing without a new page load. The publisher keeps me on the reservation. And the advertiser gets the added halo of being more closely aligned with the content experience.

PointRoll is sticking with the iPhone for its new units, which will launch shortly on USAToday's mobile site. The Ford Flex ad I played with invites the viewer to tap one end of the banner and see a full-page expandable ad that keeps the USAToday brand visible but gives you a near-full-screen view of the car and three video buttons. The videos are nicely integrated with the iPhone media player, so that they pop up to fill the screen but retreat politely back to the overlay when done. A simple corner X lets you retract the overlay to reveal the original USAToday page. I get the full functionality of a multimedia micro-site as a commercial pause from my reading experience rather than as a detour to who-knows-where. Similarly, an expandable unit for the Focus Features' "Burn After Reading" lets you drill into separate videos for the main characters played by George Clooney, Francis McDormand et. al. -- and again, without leaving the USAToday Living page.

Millennial, which says it sees 120 million monthly iPhone impressions already, is also rolling out units for BlackBerry and Windows Mobile. Millennial will have expanding banners as well. The BlackBerry units will use its vector graphics approach, and Windows Mobile will have Flash units.  The iPhone unit I tested had a cool carousel functionality that let the user ratchet through multiple creatives with directional tabs on the banner itself.

The key to the rich media in both PointRoll and Millennial's showpieces, however, is smooth integration. It is not just the larger palette of multimedia so much as it is visually reassuring users that they haven't left the content experience that brought them here. This seamless integration is powerful online but indispensible on mobile. For some reason, during this last digital decade, we tended to use technology to make ads more, not less, irritating. Perhaps now we have a chance to reverse the polarity. I think that mobile marketing's real contribution to the digital realm is that it forces us finally to leverage technology on handsets the way we should have been doing all along on the Web: real targeting, real personalization, really good and welcome advertising experiences.  

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