How users interact with the Net has been evolving for some time. Not long ago, users would go online for a finite period of time, suffer painfully slow connections, and log off. That ritual is going the way of the dinosaur. Today, there's broadband.
According to Jupiter Research (a unit of this site's parent corporation), 2003 was a banner year for the broadband industry. The number of U.S. households that subscribe to broadband rose to 21.5 million, a 25 percent increase.
Jupiter says users switch so they can access rich media content, such as video and music files. Price is another factor -- it's dropping. If that trend continues, an estimated 40 percent of all U.S. households will have a high-speed Internet connection by 2008.
As consumers drive this movement forward, the associated statistics alter how the Internet is viewed by businesses and marketers. Increased broadband use helped trigger development of such groundbreaking technologies as Skype. This system, from Kazaa's creators, allows Internet users to sidestep phone companies and make crystal-clear PC-to-PC calls, free of charge.
Broadband is also inciting media buyers to reevaluate their spends. They must ask themselves whether they're making the most of the surge in high-speed access. If not, they must determine how best to do so. This may involve responding to the increased interest in rich media purportedly being expressed by consumers.
Reports conflict over the relationship between broadband and rich media. Some insist rich media relies on high-speed connections for success. In a recent Jupiter survey, ad executives cited bandwidth constraints as an issue deterring increased rich media spending. Other industry players believe rich media technologies work just as well with dial-up connections.
Those who know best (rich media technology suppliers) have a slightly different point of view. According to Unicast, a leading rich media company, pretty much all rich media works better on broadband. Not all formats perform equally well on dial-up connections, however. Much of this has to do with file size and the way formats are delivered.
According to Unicast Senior VP Allie Savarino, there are three ways to deliver rich media: pre-caching, partial or "polite" loading, and streaming. Pre-cached ads, which load 100 percent before the user views them, play equally well on dial-up and high-speed connections (Unicast claims to be the only company offering this technology to date).
With partial loading (part of the ad is loaded in advance; the rest is delivered via streaming), the beginning of the ad will play well regardless of connection speed. If the connection is slow, the rest of the delivery could be choppy. Unicast believes the majority of rich media companies currently offer partial-loading ads.
If the ad is streaming, the speed at which it loads depends on the user's Internet connection, the level of Internet congestion when the ad is viewed, and the site on which the ad plays.
Many advertisers and media buyers may still be under a mistaken impression they shouldn't employ rich media until broadband usage increases. A good number have held out from sampling the technology for fear ad quality may be poor. Savarino says broadband helps draw more attention to rich media.
How might all this affect the Web's future? "The more people who have cable TV, the better the stations get," Savarino points out. "The more people who have broadband access, the more Web usage increases. The real impact broadband is likely to have on advertisers is the increased amount of time consumers spend interacting with the medium."
So, all you media buyers, broadband isn't just about rich media. It could open a whole new bag of worms.
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Tessa Wegert is an interactive media strategist with Enlighten, one of the first full-service digital marketing strategy and services agencies, serving such brands as Bioré, Bratz, Food Network, illy, Hunter Douglas, Jergens, and Olympic Paints and Stains. An industry veteran, Tessa has worked in online media buying and planning, marketing, and online copywriting since 1999. She is an active freelance writer specializing in interactive marketing who has contributed to U.S. and Canadian publications, including "USA Weekend Magazine," "Marketing Magazine," "The Globe and Mail," and "The Montreal Gazette." She is frequently quoted as an industry expert and speaks regularly at industry conferences and events.
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