Eyeballs: Out There for the Taking

Floating-eyeball key chains are cool. I think it was at Thunder Lizard’s second Web Advertising show in the spring of 1997 that I was first exposed to Enliven.

Enliven was demonstrating a great interactive self-promotional game within a banner ad. You took control of an animated butterfly net with your cursor to try to nab floating eyeballs as they came flying across the banner. What a perfect analogy for rich media online advertising! And Enliven had the tchotchke to match — a key chain with a nasty-looking eyeball floating in liquid encased in a clear plastic sphere. No matter which way you turned the key chain, that eyeball kept looking up, staring straight at you.

My cat loves it.

Of course, this was before the @Home acquisition, and Enliven was still known as Narrative Communications. This was back in the days before the bubble burst. Enliven has gone through a lot since then, and — like so many other companies that make their money off of Web advertising — its future is uncertain.

By now, we’ve probably all seen the news that Excite@Home has cut Enliven loose, spinning it off as an independent company once again. Enliven’s leadership team seems genuinely enthused about the move, saying they are excited to return to their roots.

Bill McCloskey predicted that 2001 would be “a make-or-break year” for Enliven, and he’s probably right. As Bill put it, if it can’t pull out of its current tailspin, this year could be it.

But why?

Why does a company whose product so very clearly outperforms “standard” online ad formats have such trouble turning a profit? And perhaps more important, why is that the case with so many rich media vendors out there?

This is not an easy question to answer, but let’s talk about some of the contributing factors.

  1. It’s Expensive

    You’ll get no argument from me on this point. Running a rich media campaign can be expensive. But look at the performance and the improved ROI. How many published studies have we seen proving that rich media outperforms “standard” online ad units, such as GIFs and even HTML banners? And I’m not just talking click-through rate here. Conversion is better, too. And so are a bunch of other metrics that are traditionally used in the offline world to measure the impact of campaigns — things like ad recall, purchase intent, and attitudinal changes. It works, folks, and the bottom line justifies the increased expense more often than not.

  2. Site Acceptance

    Again, a truth. But this is a hurdle, not a brick wall. Enliven lists more than 400 sites that accept its technology. Bluestreak claims to be accepted on more than 10,000 sites, listing most of the major portals and networks. Unicast counts several hundred among its certified site list. Even a relatively new entrant, Point7Roll, has a good list. Now, not all of them are going to be appropriate for every campaign you run, but, in most cases, you can find a rich media-enabled site that hits your market. You’re not going to be able to get the same broad reach with a rich media campaign that you could with a GIF campaign, so the right mix is critical.

    If you plan far enough ahead, most rich media vendors will help you get their technology enabled on a new site. Everyone wins there.

  3. Creative Challenges

    This is a little bit abstract. Brainstorming about creative executions that rely on technology presents a unique challenge. People want to know what’s possible before they start brainstorming. But by defining what’s possible, you also create a tidy little box that restricts what people can think about. Forget about the realm of possibility and focus on the things that will solve your clients’ marketing problems. Odds are that some techie somewhere will figure out a way to make it happen.

    I don’t pretend that this is easy. And, in fact, it helps to be out there looking at what other people are doing. Just don’t paint yourself into a corner by becoming focused only on what’s currently possible. If we all did that, there would be no more innovations. Finding the right balance is the key.

  4. Broadband

    Who cares? Yes, broadband is coming. Yes, broadband will open up new possibilities for online advertising. But it’s coming very slowly. And, in the meantime, some companies have done a darn good job of delivering compelling interactive ad units that are bandwidth-polite. That’s the entire model behind the SUPERSTITIAL.. And technologies from bluestreak and Enliven use small initial loads to get a message in front of the user while the full interactivity and functionality streams in.

  5. Education

    Every discipline within an agency — creative, media, account services — should be thinking about unique rich media solutions for clients. And the execution of a rich media campaign requires solid integration of each discipline.

The eyeballs are out there — floating around on the Web. It’s up to agencies to help our clients reach out and nab them, just as Enliven suggested at Web Ad ’97. A well-executed rich media campaign is one of the most effective ways to reach your audience online.

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