Interactive Media Is Different

Maybe it’s because I’m on a continual sugar high from an overdose of pre-holiday cookies choking the office (and my arteries). Or maybe it’s just because I’m in the middle of the usual “get-it-done-before-the-holiday-weekend” craziness.

Heck, it probably has more to do with having to hang up on yet another clueless media salesman from yet another web startup. I don’t know. All I know is that while my mind has been racing in about a million different directions lately, I have managed to come to one inescapable conclusion…

…interactive media is different, dammit!

Big revelation, huh? You’d think that it’s an incredibly obvious statement. You may have even laughed at my naiveti for having said it. But as far as I can tell from today’s web marketing world, a lot of folks just don’t get this one simple and core fact.

What do I mean? To beat a spectacularly-dead horse, take banner ads. These little beauties were cooked up by someone at HotWired who needed a way to pay for their little web experiments. Do they work? I think we’re finding out that the answer is “sorta.”

Why are they still around? Because it’s easy for old-time ad folks to wrap their wrinkled brains around them. “They’re just like print ads!” they often muse, “Only with that click-thing.”

Oooh. That’s forward thinking.

Spam is another prime example. “The web’s a direct response medium!” we hear all the time. So what do people do? They use the medium to do what they’re doing in print, only a lot cheaper. Lots of Spam goes out, some suckers respond, and the cycle continues. Is this the best use of the medium? I think you’d probably agree the answer’s “no,” but folks keep doing it.

Oh. And then there’s rich media. Don’t get me started…last time somebody did, they had to threaten to kick me in the shins before I stopped (it’s a long story). But would somebody please tell those account execs out there that the point of rich media isn’t to duplicate the experience of television? I think the long-term branding value of these beauties is probably more than bouncing your product on-screen to a techno beat. (Some companies are getting the rich media thing right, though: my humble sponsors AdPulse and Blue Streak are two of the best.)

I could keep going, but I desperately hope you’ve gotten the point – the web isn’t like print, it isn’t like direct mail, and it isn’t like some sort of stilted TV. It’s a completely different medium with its own challenges, and it’s high time that we started looking at it that way. Of course, this isn’t a new problem – it took about 20 years for the film industry to realize it could MOVE the camera as it was filming.

I don’t want to have to wait 20 years for everyone to understand how the web is different. In the interests of jacking up the learning curve, here are six reasons why the web is different:

  1. It’s Networked. Unlike traditional media, which must stand on its own, the interconnectedness of web media (and any media using the Internet) makes it inherently different. No web site is an island. Unless it’s totally unlinked to any other site, it exists as a part of an interconnected mesh that is the World Wide Web.

    This networking is global, and no company can construct its site with the misconception that it’ll only be read by people in its host country. Web marketers must realize that the web runs on the law of increasing returns, and that like it or not, everything we do is only one part of a larger, interconnected whole.

    And if you forget it, somebody like Third Voice will come along and teach you that your site is part of a larger whole. And we’re only now beginning to see the effects that networking will bring. The brave new world of Internet Appliances is upon us, pushing out the PC and ushering in a whole new web lifestyle.

  2. It’s Instantaneous. Interactive media exists at the speed of light. The web has made the 24-hour news coverage of CNN look almost slow by comparison. Any company that makes a big mistake on the web can be assured that plenty of folks will see it before it’s covered up. All it takes is one person to see it and email a friend – boom! Instant flashcrowd.

    What else could explain the instant global celebrity status of Mahir Cagris’ site? Put up as a lark by his friends, this Turk’s site has become a global meeting place for over 1 million visitors, and his greeting “Welcome to my homepage! I kiss you!” might just become the “I’ll be back” tag line of the web generation.

  3. It’s Non-linear. The web doesn’t follow a simple path. There is no “beginning” and no “end.” Most good sites (and other examples of interactivity) allow users to explore information as they see fit, not as some marketing department wants to present it.

    This offers many new challenges to anyone who has to write persuasive copy for cyberspace – the old “intro/body/conclusion” style just doesn’t cut it any more. Want to see how far non-linear media can go? Check out Plumb Design’s Visual Thesaurus for an imaginative example of using the medium in new and different ways.

  4. It’s Interactive. Well duh, right? You’d think this would be another no-brainer, but it’s amazing how many people think that interactivity means that your site has buttons to push. Yawn. No, true interactivity takes advantage of the fact that computers allow us to manipulate information, in real time. It takes advantage of the fact that computers allow us to actually do stuff instead of just reading text on the screen.

    A prime example? The most imaginative use of interactivity I’ve seen in a while is Heineken’s BarTrek site where you can download files for your PDA that guide you (decked out with a GPS and your PDA unit) right to the door of the best Heineken bars in the world. Bar finder? Pah! This is real customer service.

  5. It’s Unbounded. That’s right – Cyberspace has no borders. As somebody once said, “there’s no there there.” Physical location doesn’t matter as much as brand and your share of the attention economy. As I wrote in last weeks column, The E-Commerce Jungle, most e-stores still don’t get the fact that they’re a mere click away from their competitors – no mater where in the world their customers are coming from. Staking your claim on the web requires marketing strategies that are far removed from the analog world. Location, location, location becomes brand, brand, brand and more.
  6. Finally, it’s a Metamedium. A what? Sorry to have to fling words like that around, but its true – to call the web a medium is wrong: It’s a medium of media, a place where all forms of electronic media can meet and interact and become more than the sum of their parts.

    The web ain’t TV with links – but it can contain both. The web ain’t print with audio tracks – but it can combine them pretty well. The web isn’t even a giant database with pretty pictures – though combining the two can yield interesting results.

    No, the web represents a whole new playing field where all the little bits of knowledge that each of us bring from our traditional thought tracks must be melded together. The strengths and weaknesses of each form of media still exist, but where they intersect is where the real opportunities for the future lie.

    Related reading