Clearing Hurdles for Rich Media

Last Wednesday, the San Francisco chapter of the Rich Media SIG was re-launched at the brand-new West Coast office of Unicast, developers of the SUPERSTITIAL. As chairman of the SIG, I always get a little nervous before these meetings, thinking that no one will show up, and I’ll have to figure out how to cram enough cheese and wine to feed a hundred into my refrigerator.

But not to fear, over 120 hardy souls presented themselves, scarfed up all the food and drink, and settled down to hear Kate Everett-Thorp, CEO of Lot 21; Karim Sanjabi, President of Freestyle Interactive; Brent Hodgins, Account Director at TBWA/Chiat/Day; and Susanna Dulkinys, Creative Director with Goodby, Silverstein, and Partners, chat about the night’s theme: “Branding on the Web.”

The SIG has been mentioned in the pages of ClickZ before, but I thought that with the successful re-launch in San Francisco, this seemed an appropriate time to tell you a little bit more about the SIG, give you a sense of why it was formed, and talk about its mission.

Let’s start by first tackling the term “SIG” itself. It never occurred to me just how problematic this shorthand for “special interest group” would end up being for an organization dedicated to the online advertising community. My background is in computer graphics, and the acronym in that community is pretty common, mainly as a result of the high profile of SIGGRAPH, or Special Interest Group Graphics, the sponsor of THE conference for the graphics industry.

As an organization, SIGGRAPH was singularly responsible for driving the computer graphics industry forward at a time when many people said that graphics would never be widely adopted by filmmakers. In addition to being the source of the best and brightest in computer graphics research, SIGGRAPH is also the source of some of the most fantastically debilitating parties I’ve ever been to.

It was that combination of solid information, community building, and a commitment to laisser le bon temps rouler that became the inspiration for the Rich Media SIG. In the online advertising world, however, the term “SIG” draws blank stares.

The whole thing started last spring when I saw the first of a series of IBM rich media banners that beautifully utilized the Enliven technology. The creative was a banner consisting of a chaotically swirling jumble of letters that refused to resolve into any coherent message until you moused over the ad.

And when you did, the IBM message suddenly came together with a jolt, accompanied by the sound of a golf ball being smacked. I get it, I thought. IBM removes the chaos from my life and helps me hit a hole in one. The image stayed with me for days. It was the only banner I remember seeing that day. I still remember it ten months later.

That is the power of rich media, I thought. Imagine my surprise to read a few days later a strong criticism of that same banner in one of the influential industry newsgroups, by someone with little understanding of the technology or what it meant for the future of advertising on the Internet. And who could blame him? Other than the occasional high-priced seminar, there was no reliable source of solid information about this technology. The next day, the Rich Media SIG was born.

The mission of the SIG is to be that source, and to that end we organize a free monthly gathering of peers to brainstorm and solve obstacles to the adoption of rich media. Media buyers and planners, account executives, web publishers, sales and marketing folks, CEOs, and anyone who wants to understand how to communicate a better message are all welcome.

But don’t expect polite silence as a presentation is going on. Like the technology it discusses, the Rich Media SIG meetings are highly interactive. Audience members are encouraged to shout out, ask tough questions, challenge, probe. The objective is to get real answers to real problems. In other words, we get our hands dirty, but we do it with a glass of Chablis and a cracker full of Brie in hand.

For instance, at the last meeting the SIG announced that Lot 21 would be developing the Rich Media Seal, a sort of “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” sponsored by the SIG with the cross-industry support of Unicast, Enliven, Thinking Media, Comet Systems, AudioBase and BlueStreak.

The purpose of the seal is to help fight faux rich media banners and to increase user interaction with the technology. This is the kind of thing that the SIG is up to. I invite you to become involved. Sometimes it’s cool to change the world.

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