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A Cure for the Jaded Inert

  |  February 24, 2003   |  Comments

Just when you think you've seen it all, along comes a useful technology that could really make a difference.

Besides the clinical depression brought on by the state of the ad market (and the economy in general), two occupational diseases seem to afflict many of us online marketers today. The first is jadedness, that world-weary, seen-it-all-before, hard-to-impress feeling that comes from having the same solution pitched at you endlessly over the years. And if becoming jaded isn't enough, it's often accompanied by inertia, that "we've been doing it this way for years" disease that seems to rear its ugly head even higher during times of financial insecurity. Combine these two maladies, and you end up with an industry that seems to reward entrenchment and penalize innovation.

As "The Leading Edge" guy here at ClickZ, my job is to ferret out nifty new technologies and trends to share with you, our dear readers. And let me tell you, finding new tech worth writing about has become increasingly tougher over the last year or so. Most of the stuff I come across is either a little tweak on existing technology or neat-but-useless stuff that really won't make marketing more effective, or anybody's life any easier, than it was before. Ever since the initial explosion in online marketing innovation a few years ago, things have really become pretty quiet.

This doesn't just affect the technology side, the creative side of online advertising seems to have gotten pretty stagnant, too. For all the talk about online branding effectiveness, I've gotta say I've yet to see more than a handful of online ads that have anywhere near the brand resonance and/or emotional effectiveness of even the most middling TV spots. Sure, sure, sure... we've gotten pretty darn good at eliciting direct response, but the more emotional elements are still lacking.

Some of this can probably be attributed to creative departments seemingly putting most of the emphasis on the "big media" and relegating the crumbs to the interactive folks. On top of this, with budgets tightening, clients seem to be far less willing to spend the money on truly innovative online marketing than they were before. Just give 'em some CPC or cost-per-action (CPA) banner buys, toss in some direct email, and round out the "campaign" with some search engine optimization (SEO) or keyword buys, and you're done. Forget about the complicated, cutting-edge, innovative stuff... the budget won't allow it (even if it probably is more effective in the long run).

Nowhere is this thinking more apparent than in the rich media arena. For all the promise of rich media in driving branding and direct response (or "brand response" as some like to call it), for all the growth in broadband, and despite the penetration of formats such as Macromedia Flash into the marketplace, few but the biggest brands have really done much in the way of innovative online advertising. Yes, a lot of big consumer packaged goods brands find the money to do stuff that makes an impact, and, yes, a few other high-ticket brands (BMWFilms.com comes to mind, of course) find the money to break new ground, but what about all the other thousands of advertisers out there? Frustrated with "ineffective" traditional banner formats (and, yes, that's certainly a debate for another column) and limited by budget or expertise restraints when looking to develop rich media creative, I suspect many online advertisers are succumbing to both cynicism and inertia.

But who can blame them? Rich media is difficult. It can be expensive to develop and difficult to deploy and often meets resistance from internal agency folks who don't want to deal with its complexities.

That's where CheckM8 comes in.

Just when I thought I had seen almost everything and was starting to teeter on the very edge of that big inertial rut, I had the distinct pleasure of seeing a demo of this company's rich media toolkit. I was blown away by the possibilities.

Rather than taking the roads already well traveled by companies such as Enliven and Bluestreak, CheckM8 provides an easy-to-use "toolkit" for both publishers and agencies that enables the creation of a whole host of mix-and-match rich media ad types. From in-context ads that actually insert messaging into content to floating banners to 3-D banners to full-screen takeover ads and other interactive rich media formats, CheckM8's products allow for a huge range of creative possibilities.

Publishers install the software (or run it using a hosted model) and agencies create and manage their campaigns using a Web-based interface that allows for instant configuration and tracking of rich media campaigns. Want a floating banner, video ad, and watermark? No problem. Just select the ads you want from the control panel, and they're published. After tracking, do you want to rearrange the ads? Just go back in, click a few buttons, and it's done.

Tracking and targeting capabilities are just what we've come to expect. Geographical targeting, daypart targeting, contextual targeting, and reach/frequency are all built into the system.

So far, CheckM8 has had the best success in Europe. It's currently tightly partnered with Terra Lycos in Spain, with Ya.com, Club-Internet.fr, and across the Lycos Europe network.

In the U.S., it's begun to expand into Lycos' other properties. CheckM8 has also recently partnered with Oddcast to offer an even-wider range of rich media possibilities.

This actually brings me to one of the most interesting parts of CheckM8's system: the library of more than 60 prebuilt rich media formats ready for the using. No longer does the creative department have to come up with this stuff from scratch -- the library heads off that dreaded creative inertia when it comes to doing rich media in your own shop. Granted, you still have to do a lot of the building yourself, but the formats in the library can offer a much-needed kick in the creative pants when it's needed most.

Of course, I'd be remiss to not add a couple of caveats to this review, not the least of which is CheckM8's potential for creating incredibly user-surly ad bombardments from over-zealous advertisers. As we've seen from so much of the consumer backlash over pop-ups and pop-unders, consumers don't seem to be too excited about ads that get in the way of their user experience. While used sparingly, CheckM8's (and others') formats can be effective tools for grabbing attention. Used without considering the user... well, just like any power tool, improper use can get ugly pretty rapidly.

CheckM8's still pretty new to the U.S. scene, but if you've been considering rich media advertising and have been looking for a way to get in with relative ease, the tools are definitely worth a look. Innovation rules.

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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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