Rich Media Down Under

I just got back from Sydney, where I spoke at Adforum 2000, a yearly Internet conference put on by Consult.com, Australia’s leading research and analysis company.

Hosted for the last four years by Ramin Marzbani, Consult.com’s hospitable founder and CEO, and Ian Webster, Consult’s mercurial senior media analyst, Adforum is the conference to be at if you’re part of Australia’s blossoming Internet advertising industry: It’s sort of an @d:tech and Jupiter conference rolled into one.

One of the highlights of the conference for me was finding out that wunderkind Rex Briggs, formerly of Millward Brown and now director of e-marketing strategy for Pandesic, can (after a few drinks) do a standing forward flip. Quite impressive!

As far as rich media Down Under is concerned, there are the beginnings of a movement, although Australians face some major roadblocks before high-speed broadband video and audio streaming become commonplace. The primary problem is the stranglehold the telcos seem to have over the local ISPs, charging them 18 Aussie cents for every megabyte download, a fee guaranteed to put a damper on MP3 sites until high-speed cable access is widely available.

Of course, this is an opportunity for some, and @home’s John Garner, who is heading up the Internet cable company’s Australian push, spoke at both the Wednesday afternoon rich media workshop and the next day’s rich media conference presentation. @home has not merged with Excite Down Under, and there are no plans to offer Enliven ads on the service, but John demonstrated some impressive streaming video and audio ads that he said would be deployed over the @home cable network.

On the local front, Sydney-based Creative Edge Internet Services, a rich media technology company along the lines of Unicast, demonstrated its product NetBreak.. Like the Unicast SUPERSTITIAL, NetBreak can load up to 200K Flash or animated GIF files in the background while the user is reading on a web site. Unlike the SUPERSTITIAL, however, NetBreak pops to the front and starts playing as soon as the file has downloaded, instead of at a new page load.

The work, samples of which can be viewed at the site, is quite effective and was created in-house. During one case study, co-founder Richard Werkhoven reported that the NetBreak ad delivered four times the click-throughs of the standard GIF that was also run as part of the buy, even though the GIF ad was delivered to eight times the users.

F2, the Fairfax Interactive Network, is Australian media giant Fairfax’s web division. Accounting for 30 to 50 percent of the local Internet traffic, F2 has been pushing the rich media boundaries. It ran the first ever Australian Enliven ad back in November, and next week will be running the first ever combined Flash and Cometized Banner anywhere. Obviously, with high costs per megabyte download, compact file formats like Flash and the Comet Cursor make a lot of sense in Australia.

And finally, under the guise of killing many emu with one stone, Australia’s branch of Oven Digital created a rich media email Christmas card to send to their clients and friends. The email gave the agency an opportunity to test out some rich media ideas in a fun, low-stress way. Called “An Oven Baked Christmas Treat: Santa Cruise 2000,” the project was treated as a commercial venture with specific deadlines and was tracked and evaluated like a real campaign.

The email was sent to 298 people on the Oven Digital mailing list, yet 1,290 unique visitors responded, a 432 percent response rate. The personalized email led the user to an introductory sequence created in Flash and then to a game that was specifically designed so it could be played offline and sent to friends. An impressive 795 visitors played the game once, with 125 coming back for more. The average visit to the site lasted six minutes and 43 seconds, showing the “stickiness” (God, I hate that word) of rich media.

Rich media has a ways to go yet Down Under, but it has a ways to go here in the United States, for that matter. Expected to hit $100 million over the next year (up from $30 million last year), Internet advertising in Australia is beginning to pick up steam, and rich media is certainly going to be a big part of it.

As I sat in my hotel room, it was obvious that Australian TV commercials are far more clever, creative and entertaining than the imported American TV shows they surround. I can’t wait to see that kind of creativity migrate its way north to my little computer screen.

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