Rich Ad, Poor Ad

I started my interactive marketing career around 1993, producing CD-ROMs designed to run product marketing loops at tradeshows, be used in touch-screen kiosks, or be mailed to the small percentage of customers who actually owned CD-ROM drives.

Back then, we had no idea what the impact of interactivity on marketing would eventually mean (some days, we still don’t). We did know we were working with something that, if done right, could be an incredibly effective way of informing and entertaining customers. I didn’t guess the half of it.

Five years later, I was developing and writing about rich media and interactive marketing. During my first year as a pundit in this emerging field, I enthusiastically pushed rich media advertising to any company that would listen. For many, rich media’s lack of a pedigree sufficed to keep them away. They understood GIF banner ads. Those were easy to implement and did just fine.

My message was simple: An effective ad should inform, provide a positive experience to the recipient, and result in a message passed from the ad space to the customer.

Today, the rich media buzz is ever louder. There’s consensus on simple GIF ads: They no longer effectively drive traffic — if they ever did. The ability to create effective rich media ads has passed from the domain of specialists to that of ad agencies. Even clients can create their own ads.

Yet with the buzz surrounding rich media, I’m uncomfortable with recent studies suggesting the real benefit of rich media ads is they garner a better CTR than their GIF predecessors. It’s said rich media ads now lead the charge because they’re more dynamic than their slow-witted cousins. But are they used to their best advantage?

Frequent readers of this column know if there’s one thing that gets my blood pressure up, it’s when some ad “solution” smugly claims by using its particular doohickey or top-secret approach, advertisers will garner high CTRs.

To this point, GartnerG2 recently conducted a study showing 78 percent of respondents found pop-up ads “very annoying.” Only 49 percent disliked banner ads to the same degree. Still, growth for pop-up ads appears bright, as they have CTRs twice as high as those for banners.

In some cases, the reason for the click-through increase is due to slimy marketing tactics. Some ads automatically trigger a click-through if the customer touches the box with her cursor. Others provide realistic-looking close boxes whose sole function is to instigate a click through. There are those who think all should be fair in love and advertising. What does this mean for pop-ups’ long-term value? What does it say for results’ validity?

Imagine a store that installed a tracker beam designed to suck passers-by off the sidewalk and inside. Which is more probable: Sucked-in customers will stay, browse, and perhaps buy; or they will utter words that would embarrass a longshoreman before beating it out of there?

Before the sales staff spends time clapping one another on the shoulder and congratulating themselves on increased numbers of customers, perhaps they should review register receipts for the real story. Using underhanded techniques to increase traffic is a way of seeing only what you want to.

Rich media advertising can be so much more than flashy images and bogus click-throughs. By creating marketing tools that inform and entertain, advertisers can reach those customers who desire and can use the products and services being offered. Doesn’t the value of a single customer who wants to buy outweigh 100 who don’t?

Perhaps the term “rich media” needs a makeover. If every ad is Flash based and all have some sort of animation, isn’t that just media? Perhaps “rich media” should be reserved for ads providing functionality that assists in the marketing process by offering the customer information and experiences that help meet a need. Non-click-through interactivity should define richness.

Doubtless some advertisers reap benefits from an aggressive approach to advertising. I suspect they’re the exception, not the rule.

Advertisers owe it to themselves to avoid a predator/prey mentality. Think instead how to inform and assist customers, be it through rich media or plain old GIFs.

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