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Applications, Not Ads

  |  May 19, 2003   |  Comments

Why marketing's future lies in interactive experiences.

With all the pressure to show direct results these days, many of us find ourselves fighting a desperate battle with acronyms. ROI, CRM, CPC, CPM... the three-letter demons fly fast and furious in online marketing discussions. While "direct" and "measurable results" seem to be the mantras (and curses) of online marketing today, branding is often left out in the cold.

Sure, many people like to give branding lip service by focusing on graphic identity and logos, and that's fine. But it's just one part of the equation. The bigger issue is brand isn't a logo. It's the (often unquantifiable) experience that occurs when a customer comes into contact with a company, wherever that contact may occur.

Many of us know this intuitively but often find ourselves off course when navigating the rocky road between branding and response, especially in a medium where response is so easy to measure. But when you come face to face with truly effective brand experience, it's hard to ignore.

I was smacked in the face with this fact recently at the very stimulating eNarrative conference at the Hotel @ MIT in Cambridge, MA. Unlike the myriad of business-oriented conferences I have the pleasure to attend and speak at, eNarrative focuses on the art and theory of digital media.

Between the demos and discussions it became clear so much of digital media's power gets lost when we forget the Web is fundamentally different from other media. Used correctly, digital media allow us to do things not possible in any other medium. Used incorrectly, pale imitations of other media result. Interactivity permits truly immersive experiences that go far beyond what can be done in print, TV, or radio. These experiences aren't merely academic exercises. They are key to communicating brands online.

Want an example? Head over to the Boston Symphony Orchestra's (BSO's) Online Conservatory and poke around. What you'll find in the high-bandwidth "Explore" section is one of the most compelling examples of communicating the brand and values of an institution anywhere on the Web. By using motion, sound, and highly sophisticated (but beautifully simple) interactive teaching tools, the BSO's Online Conservatory does more to sell the value of a big-city symphony than any brochure, sell sheet, or TV spot ever could. Users can view documentaries, interviews with composers, and even compose their own music in the style of composer John Cage. While being sucked in to "play" with the interactivity, visitors become immersed in the brand experience of a symphony whose mission is to educate and entertain the public.

But are there "results"? You had to ask, huh?

Happily, the short answer is "yes." The BSO reports measurable increases in attendance and subscriptions, as well as large spikes in traffic for featured composers before performances. This fact indicates people use the site in the manner in which it's intended.

This type of online experience isn't limited to nonprofits and arts institutions. Two of the most successful online marketing efforts, BMW Films and Life Saver's Candystand, are about communicating the brand experience over generating leads or other "measurable" metrics. They (and sites like them) immerse the user in a total brand experience that lasts far longer than a fleeting glimpse of a banner or a 30-second spot. Although BMW's campaign is about old media (film), the distribution never could have happened without the Web. The Candystand's games couldn't exist outside the digital realm. Both work because they leverage the unique aspects of the medium, not because they try to pour old wine into new bottles.

The future of online advertising is more about applications than ads. It's about involving the user in new and unique experiences that one-way broadcast media can't possibly accomplish. You don't need to use a full site to accomplish this, as this GE ad demonstrates. It combines powerful brand imagery with useful direct measurement avenues. Measurement will always be important. But the future lies in interactive experiences.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sean Carton

Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.

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