Rich Media Darwinism

You can’t know where you’re going, unless you know where you came from. -traditional African proverb

It seems as if at least once a week, I’m asked to predict the future.

Generally, it’s a client who asks what the next great innovation in online marketing will be and how he can be a part of it. Often, it’s a member of my creative team, who wants to know when the latest ad-serving technologies will support more immersive experiences. Sometimes it’s my wife, who wants to know when we’re finally going to cash out and buy that chateau in France.

My answer to all these inquiries is the same: We’re not there yet.

Digital Darwinism” by Evan Schwartz offers some strategies for economic survival in a brutal marketplace. It got me thinking about what it would take for rich media to truly evolve into a species that could survive online advertising’s current, brutal conditions. Unknowingly, the climate is trying to kill rich media.

“Brutal” is a relative term. Brutal to the rich media species isn’t brutal to marketers or media planners. To a creative person trying to innovate and evolve rich media advertising units, brutality comes in many forms. Today, I’ll discuss brutality in technological advances and standards.

Remember the good old days, when we’d have a really great idea for an ad? We’d just call up the sites and talk with the tech guys to see if we could implement it. The landscape has certainly evolved, but how has that helped the rich media ad?

For one thing, back then it was difficult, expensive, and very hard to track the success of any online advertising creative or technical innovation. I fondly remember the Enliven banner (probably the equivalent of Cro-Magnon man on the evolutionary timeline), and how the ability to print directly from a banner was considered innovative. And it was. But Enliven was quickly bought by Unicast, not for its innovative formats but for its tracking technology. First brutal condition: the need for better tracking.

Then came “standards,” fueled by those who wanted them (myself included). Standards make it easier for everyone to create, serve, and track online ads. Standards help reduce costs. Just look at Sarbanes-Oxley (wink, wink). Second brutal condition: standards.

Finally, rich ad-serving technology companies provided frameworks for creating rich media units. Now, technology companies have all but created a rich-media-unit-in-a-box solution. These are supposed to engage potential consumers of products who decide within three seconds if they want to engage with an advertisement.

Some reasons for this are obvious. Traditional agencies have content (TV spots). Rich, video-friendly ad-serving technology companies have an opportunity to bring in revenue. Hence, a focus on streaming video.

The next evolutionary step for rich media, if it follows the same track of mediocrity, is very predictable. In the creative world, predictable is bad. Whenever we standardize, we end up commoditizing. It’s that simple. And that’s what we’re in danger of doing with rich media advertising.

If you take one thing away from this column, it’s this: The work you’ve done in tracking and analyzing where and to whom your online advertising has the most impact is good. Use it as a foundation to build online experiences people actually want. Ubiquity means the certain death of the rich media unit. Innovation moves us away from ubiquity. Give people what they want — and what they don’t expect to see in an ad unit.

The Volvo V50 microsite is a great example of an innovation, only it’s not an ad. It could be, though. Beautifully done, it’s a view from inside a café. There’s a menu to your left, a newspaper, a cup of coffee, sunglasses, and a copy of Auto magazine. Outside the window, you see the new Volvo V50. Cars pass. You hear people talking and see them walking by. Everything inside the window is interactive. Even if you do nothing, you see the car in a lovely setting.

And if you do happen to click… wow! You’re in the car, heading to the beach. There, you can read about the car, arrange a test drive, order a brochure, or build your own car. Could it be a rich media ad? Stop thinking about technology and megabytes. Is this something consumers will respond to?

Like any species, the rich media ad is evolving in response to its environment. Just as standards, technologies, and metrics are part of the environment, so are consumers. Let’s hope consumer demand will be strong enough to help rich media ads evolve into a surviving species. Or, all rich media advertising could end up being viral.

And that, dear reader, is a subject for another column.

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