Advertisers Look to Capitalize on Broadband

For years, start-up companies and old-media execs alike have repeated a mantra-like phrase: “When there is broadband, everything will be different.”

It will be a rich-media world full of interactivity and beautiful brand-building imagery. Traditional advertisers will be happy, because big pipes will finally give them the high-production-values visuals they’ve been seeking. But what does a broadband advertisement really look like?

Is it just a clickable television spot? Will it be full-screen? Will it be integrated into the programming? What does the user experience?

There are scattered broadband plays starting up and serving the estimated 2 million people with high-bandwidth access, and every company, it seems, has a different vision of how an advertising-supported model should work. It’s an important question, because marketers don’t want to be stuck with an unsatisfying standard, as the banner advertisement turned out to be.

This is an opportunity, if need be to do a ‘do over’ with advertising,” said Kate Everett-Thorp, president and chief executive officer of Lot21, an interactive agency that is conducting a lot of experiments with new ad formats, “You kind of really have to take the blinders off and say ‘what’s possible?'”

In seeking answers to the broadband advertising question, the Internet Advertising Report sought opinions from across the industry – from technology folks to media companies to designers and agencies – and found there are as many ideas as there are companies chasing the broadband dream.

First, there’s the essential question – what is broadband? For our purposes, we spoke to those designing high-bandwidth Internet media, in which streaming audio and video play a big role, as well as those thinking about interactive television. There are also those who pooh-pooh those distinctions, believing that one convergent medium, something of an Internet/TV hybrid, will be the final state of evolution.

The seemingly least-inspired, but perhaps the most practical, of thinkers opine that broadband advertising will simply be television spots re-purposed slightly. The video, after all, has already been created for TV, so why not throw it onto the Internet? The user will be able to click-through, stop and rewind, but, it’s just a TV-like image, albeit with certain interactive enhancements.

“That’s actually a pretty compelling value proposition,” said David Isenberg, worldwide director of broadband applications for Engage Technologies, “for some of the advertisers that haven’t, heretofore, been very involved in the Internet space.”

Some think “hot spots” will be embedded into the video programming itself, enabling users to click on a certain product in the content. Users could click on a couch pictured in a dramatic program, for example, and go directly to an e-tailer to buy it. Or perhaps there would be a panel below or beside the video window, where a text screen alerts a user when there are opportunities to click.

If TV-style video commercials are used, matching banner ads or ads in other formats could appear elsewhere on the screen. These messages, most agree, won’t be longer than 15 seconds or so, lest viewers click away.

That enhanced TV commercial model is the one that ImaginOn.com is pursuing. The company is selling a “TV channel in a box,” a hardware and software kit that allows businesses to set up their own Internet broadcasting stations. David Schwartz, the company’s CEO, envisions full-screen video commercials that appear intermittently in programming streams (just like on TV) and whole programs, like info-mericals, dedicated to selling products.

But would an empowered user simply fast-forward past the commercials, if that were possible? And, if the user isn’t allowed the option, will he just switch the program off? The Internet culture, after all, hasn’t allowed many paid subscription sites to survive, so it’s possible that viewers may reject the idea of being forced to watch ads in exchange for receiving programming.

The trick, then, is to make the ads so compelling as encourage viewership and interaction.

That rich media will play more of a role is pretty much universally accepted. Right now, one of the most popular ways of adding zip to ads and sites is Macromedia‘s Flash, and Matt Conners, senior production and marketing manager for Flash and Freehand, believes it will continue to be used in a high-bandwidth future.

“No matter what, people are going to try to push more information down the pipes,” Conners said. “I think we’re going to start seeing more clever ways of capturing those eyeballs. It’s going to get very interesting, very fast.”

One of the clever design shops is Hillman Curtis Design. The company, named after its head honcho, has been taking broadcast campaigns and translating them for the Web, starting with video and throwing in a liberal dose of Flash. What Curtis is finding is that these high-impact messages, and high-bandwidth media, are ideally suited for brand messages. “What we try to do, within five to fifteen seconds, is reinforce the brand,” says Curtis.

Flash isn’t the only thing that’s being added to broadband-oriented ads to make them more compelling. Lot21 has experimented with database-driven commercials for ZDTV. “The commercial actually sucked in live data from the Web and inserted them into the video,” says Sasha Pave, director of technical design at Lot21.

These cutting-edge experiments are going on all across the industry. Agencies are setting up in-house groups that are working with publishers, broadcasters, and advertisers and taking their best shot at broadband advertising. So far, there’s no consensus of what will emerge, or even what works.

“It’s very hard to get an idea, at this point, of what works and doesn’t work, because of the limited size of the audience that’s out there,” says Jon Richmond, president of News Digital Media, which is producing broadband versions of Fox programming for Road Runner and @Home.

“We just know that the advertisers are very happy with what we’re able to do in broadband.”

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