Introducing… Rich Media

Time was when rich media was like runway fashion: a lot of funk, not a lot of practical application.

Well, folks, those times are history. Rich media is increasingly creeping onto sites and into our email boxes. That is to say: We’ve seen the future of online advertising, and it is rich.

And it’s about time, isn’t it? No more running from rich media technology, predicting browser blow-ups, sluggish downloads, and clogged pipelines. Instead, we have the technology to do some pretty exciting things online, and rich media is spearheading that evolution.

But more about that in a minute. First, let’s talk a bit about what rich media is.

Easy enough, right?

Well, actually… er… no. It’s a tough thing to define. Very tough, actually.

Ask Bill McCloskey, for example. Bill’s the guy who’s going to be writing this weekly thread on ClickZ about rich media. As chairman and founder of the Rich Media SIG (Special Interest Group), he REALLY knows his way around rich media. (In his day job, by the way, Bill is the evangelist for Comet Systems, Inc., an Internet software technology company.)

In his debut column next week, Bill says that he’s always being asked, “Hey, smart guy, what IS rich media, anyway?”

He ought to be able to hit that one clear out of the park. But the truth is that even the Rich Media SIG board, which definitely includes no slouches, has difficulty agreeing on a coherent and cogent definition. “It’s sort of like defining the term art,” Bill said earlier this week.

Bill will talk more about his issues next week. (And his therapist has encouraged him to share.) So for now, it’s far easier to talk about, in general terms, some of the unique capabilities of rich media, and where it is taking the online advertising industry.

My own, decidedly non-techie definition is this: Rich media is online advertising on steroids.

It’s like a DVD music video compared with a favorite cassette tape in a Fisher-Price player.

It’s like a 1997 Storybook Mountain Zinfandel compared with a box of White Zin.

It’s more compelling, more complex, more varied, and more flexible, ultimately, than a flat banner ad.

So where are we now?

First of all, rich media isn’t so scary anymore. In fact, rich media has come out of the woodshed and joined us all at the dining-room table for the big feast.

Bandwidth is still a big issue, of course. But far less so than it used to be. Today, the technology has evolved to a point where it can sniff out what the user on the other end of the pipeline is capable of handling. That has made site publishers far less skittish about accepting rich media advertising, because they know that their users won’t complain about being served ads they simply can’t handle.

At the same time, rich media is proving to be inherently more trackable than your garden-variety banner ad. And the data collected from rich media campaigns is far more meaningful, measured by either branding or results.

With the richer technologies, advertisers can tell how many individuals moused over a particular ad, how long they spent interacting with it, how far they followed the campaign, and what the end result was. And some rich media banners are commerce-enabled, in that users can actually buy a pair of jeans within it, and not just click to get to the Eddie Bauer site.

Finally, you have to admit that rich media is a heck of a lot more compelling. Look, for example, at the simple device McCloskey’s company produces, the Comet Cursor. It’s a little piece of rich media technology that lets web sites replace those bland arrows and hyper-hands with colorful images and animations. I mean… isn’t that far more memorable than a strip of animation on the top of a web page?

There’s lots more to say about the promise of rich media. But really, that’s Bill’s job in the weeks ahead. Bill’s column, by the way, is sponsored by Solbright, a New York-based company that offers digital media solutions to automate Internet marketing and advertising workflows.

Each week, thanks to our friends at Solbright, Bill will give you the real deal on rich media. He’ll give you a round-up of the various technologies out there. He’ll talk interactive TV and broadband. He’ll talk branding. He’ll talk customer acquisition. And he’ll talk about privacy. So starting next Thursday, stay tuned.

See you next week.

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