Life Is But a Stream?

It must be a sign of the times. Over the past two weeks, companies claiming they can solve all our budget allocation woes have inundated us. They claim budget nirvana lies in streaming media over the Internet. Their formula seems quite simple: Take a mass medium such as the Internet, add a 30-second commercial produced for television, and stream it online. Traditional planners and buyers will “get it.” No need to produce customized creative, and budgets will just flow from television to the Internet. Right?

Well… not really.

Don’t get me wrong, I am an advocate of streaming online. We have seen campaigns where streaming has significantly increased our ability to build positive message association, brand preference, and favorability. Despite the typical cost premium, we have also seen streaming can help achieve more direct-response-oriented goals. Streaming has fundamental problems, however: the nature of the ad content, the context in which it appears, and the lack of scale.

To uncover the real streaming opportunity, it’s helpful to get a fundamental understanding of the landscape.

The Tech Specs

On the technical side, there are two primary variables to consider when looking at online advertising delivered within a streamed environment: the type of video player and the ad-insertion technology.

Video players can be divided into Java and non-Java applications. Java-based players include EyeWonder, Klipmart, and Clipstream. These players have proprietary coder-decoders (codecs) that help deliver the best balance of video quality and compression. They’re designed to be playable by most folks, because Java is often built into browser software. Non-Java based solutions, which require proprietary player software, include recognizable names such as Windows Media Player and RealNetworks’s RealOne Player.

On a broadband connection not behind a corporate firewall, both player types do an admirable job of streaming advertising and editorial content. However, we have seen in real-life settings the Java-based players are better at infiltrating corporate networks and provide better video quality to narrowband or dial-up users. Likely, an increase in broadband penetration, along with improvements in the non-Java players, will eventually even the playing field.

In terms of ad-insertion technology, a few companies claim to be able to target ad messages throughout a network of sites. The targeting capabilities span a wide range of variables: demographics, geography, time of day, type of editorial content, and so on. Lightningcast, Hiwire, and Roo Media are three specialized companies that compete in this field; Windows Media and RealNetworks also play in this space.

Content, Context, and Scale

Whatever the technology or distribution system, taking an existing 30-second television commercial and running it online is not the solution. Lots of advertisers do it, and we have been guilty of it at our agency. Problem is it’s so darn easy to do. From a creative standpoint, the challenges are apparent: a spot designed for a 60-inch screen 5 feet away (passive experience) doesn’t always work for a 17-inch “lean in” Web experience. Additionally, consumers’ mindset when they are online is different than when they are lying on the couch.

The answer? We need to start deliberately shooting advertising content for the Web. Right now, commercials and outtakes (behind the scenes, etc.) predominate. In the near future we will see the proliferation of “shorts” that may be 30 or 60 seconds but are optimized for the Web experience.

Context is another issue facing the “streamies.” The wide range of possibilities and lack of standardization across publishers (see my last column) is the main culprit here.

Some publishers offer “pre-roll” ads, which run prior to consumer-selected content. Makes sense, as these ads catch consumers at a moment of peak curiosity and attentiveness. Other publishers offer “post-roll” ads, which appear after the content — certainly not optimal. To add to the variability, some of the Java-based players must be user-initiated, while others are server-initiated (i.e., consumers need do nothing to begin the stream). As a community, we should try to be as consistent as possible, so consumers become more accustomed to a commercial-style break in between content.

For streaming to really take off, we also need scale. As the economy continues to limp along, many large publishers are reducing the amount of free streamed content they offer to users (conserving bandwidth costs). Opportunities are significantly reduced from a pre- and post-roll standpoint. Although we can still utilize the Java-based third-party streaming vendors, we need to be mindful of context and advertising receptivity. As broadband matures and the economy improves, we will see an increase in free streamed publisher content (including advertising opportunity).

Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking running television commercials online is the Holy Grail. It devalues our proposition as an industry and our position as e-marketing professionals. We did not come this far to be just another delivery vehicle for television spots.

Let’s capitalize on the rich experience streaming advertising can deliver. If we can do that through engaging creative built for the Web, we’ll start seeing some more of those traditional dollars heading our way.

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