Rich Media Ads: Size Does Matter

I admit it, I’m spoiled.

For years, I had the luxury of creating interactive products with bandwidth requirements based on how much stuff could fit on a CD. Even in interactive advertising, with a rich media development company behind me, I was usually able to work with sites so their rich media playback parameters fit the ad’s needs. After all, rich media will save the entire online advertising industry. What’s a 150K file between friends? Advertisers benefit, and so do the sites that run the ads!

Loyal readers know for years I’ve been pushing the message rich media is the future of online advertising. Stay away from static GIF ads (unless you really enjoy throwing away your online marketing budget). Focus on measuring interactivity, not click-through. Engage the consumer and watch the positive return on investment (ROI) roll in.

Looks good on paper. That is, until you sit down to create a truly dynamic ad and realize it must be under 25K, or sites just won’t run it. This is easily accomplished if you avoid including content. Maybe a click-through link will fit?

Recently, I’ve been hard at work designing a variety of online ads. I’m coming up against content and size restrictions that put a damper on the “rich” part of rich media. I understand publishers must set guidelines for advertisers so the site experience is positive for visitors. But I wonder if the sites realize the restrictions they put on themselves.

When online advertising consisted of GIF ads, restricting ad size made sense. Because the GIF format needed to load the entire file before it could display, each GIF contributed to the total time that page took to load. Too long a wait and the visitor would surely leave in search of greener (read: faster) pastures. Add that to the reality most of us had dial-up modems. Waiting for 50K of ad content to load before a page could display had significance.

Today, ad content has largely embraced the Flash format. This streaming media format loads separately from HTML. A majority of online users are connecting to the Internet (at least at work, if not at home) via DSL, cable, T-1, T-3, or other broadband technologies. For them, loading an additional 50K worth of data is a vague afterthought, at best.

Yet I still get ad guidelines telling me my 120 x 600 skyscraper rich media ad cannot exceed 15K in size.

What am I to do?

In February 2001, the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) tried to set guidelines for rich media. The solution was to “chunk” ad data based on “before and after” interactivity. For example, a skyscraper ad’s data size was restricted to 20K. The IAB’s parameters said once the consumer rolled over or clicked on the ad, three additional streams of up to 50K each could be uploaded to the ad space. The thinking was a consumer who has no interest in what the ad offers shouldn’t be obliged to “pay” for it by downloading the entire ad. By showing an initial screen, however, the consumer could decide to interact with the ad. Content would be sent on demand.

A nice theory, but in practice it was dampened by the need to traffic four separate files that would later combine as a single ad (initial page load plus the three additional streams). Another factor hindering success was it was a great format for a microsite-type ad that lent itself to having a few clickable tabs. But for interactive games, dynamic ads that provide or collect data, or ads that don’t lend themselves to a multistream format, it was a square peg in a round hole. Not unlike a publisher saying you can write a book on any topic, provided it isn’t over 280 pages or more than 24 chapters long. It doesn’t make sense in publishing or online advertising. Advertising isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition.

IAB efforts led to discussions about standardized ad sizes. Currently, one site may have a size restriction of 20K for a format, another may set that restriction at 50K. These inconsistencies guarantee sleepless production nights for ad developers.

I propose sites serving rich media ads review their policies on size criteria. In many cases (I hazard to guess) the restrictions are the same ones placed on GIF ads. In other cases, I suspect size restrictions are arbitrary guesses as to what a rich media developer can work with or based on what some other site does. How many of these policies are designed around promoting use of rich media technologies so more advertisers embrace interactive marketing?

I’m not saying publishers should give developers carte blanche to create gargantuan ads that take hours to download. But for rich media to offer advertisers the results they want, those ads types need to be supported by the sites serving them. Publishers, please don’t stifle online marketing’s creativity and effectiveness by setting arbitrary guidelines. Bump the ad size guidelines up to 100K. Heck, most of the developers I work with would settle for 50K!

With some current size restrictions, I may just have to start recommending static GIFs to my clients. At least I can bring them in at 15K.

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