Rich Media: Is It Hype or Hope?

Let’s start at the beginning by answering the basic question: Just what is rich media advertising?

The online advertising industry has gone wild over the possibility of adding rich media content to Internet advertising, but few people have a clear understanding of the term “rich media.” So here it is: Rich media refers to the integration of animation, sound, interactivity, and even commerce into the space typically filled by GIF-based banner advertisements.

A typical rich media ad will allow a user to view products in more than two dimensions. Maybe that means listen to audio product descriptions, take a virtual test drive, or buy a product on-line without being forced to abandon the site that he or she is on — bringing the impulse buy to the Internet.

Even unsavvy Internet advertisers can see the value of making Internet advertising more “TV-like.” But people fail to understand the many issues that surround (and thwart the acceptance of) rich media advertising today. Like what? Well, there are two basic truths about rich media advertising to date:

  • Rich media has not experienced wide-spread adoption (approximately 0.5 percent of Internet ads currently utilize rich media), and
  • Rich media ads tend to experience high click-through rates compared with GIF banner ads.

    These two facts force an interesting question: Why are rich media ads not being embraced when they garner better click-though performance than other ad formats deployed today? Studies show that a typical banner ad experiences about a 1.5 percent click-through rate, whereas rich media ads obtain a click-through rate of 4 to 15 percent.

    From an advertiser’s perspective, the choice seems clear, But typically there are many more people involved in the ad placement process than just the ad buyer.

    In the real world, rich media advertising is held back by user connectivity speeds; the need for special players, plug-ins, or server components; HTML page interference; and, publisher performance concerns. Both web publishers and vendors of rich media development tools are taking steps to help dodge these problems and issues. But the market reality is that the advancement will be slow. Let’s look at each point in more depth to understand the state of rich media advertising.

    Connectivity Speeds

    Many advertisers are discouraged when they find that they can’t always use rich media technologies to create ads. The reason is simple: User connectivity speeds and packet sizes demand that ads be “light” — often smaller than 12K bytes.

    Since a majority of home and small-office/home-office users continue to access the Internet through 28.8K modems that perform poorly when ads are rich in color, animation, audio, or interactivity, the GIF banner ad continues to be the most viable option. This trend may change in the near future with the proliferation of high-speed access devices and Internet TV. But judging by the slow speed with which the cable modem (the most logical of high-speed consumer bandwidth channels) has been brought to market, I predict a long introduction cycle.

    Special Players, Plug-ins, or Server Components

    The goal of Internet advertising and commerce is to make the buying and information-gathering process as painless as possible for the consumer. To facilitate this, the user must be able to accept ads and promotions on the hardware and software that he or she currently owns (browser, processor, screen resolution, installed players and drivers, and so on).

    Bottom line: It is unrealistic to expect consumers to actively seek out and obtain special plug-ins or players that allow them to view Internet advertisements. Doing so is like forcing viewers to use 3D glasses to see the content of a billboard.

    Most rich media technologies have not been able to avoid requiring users to install plug-ins or players to display their ads; this reality severely limits the use of the technology today.

    Some rich media environments do not demand that users obtain special technologies to allow ads to be displayed, but they do require web publishers to install special software on servers to facilitate ad delivery. Many of the ad servers that are shipped today have rich media serving tools built in. But these tools are included on a vendor-by-vendor basis, often creating clumsy servers or added performance concerns.

    However, IBM has created a rich media environment that circumvents this problem. IBM’s solution, HotMedia, uses multiple mini-players developed in Java that are designed to perform a specific act related to each downloaded frame of an ad run. The players are small enough to keep the entire ad size down to that of a simple HTML banner ad, while delivering the desired rich media content. The adoption of HotMedia and its development environment will be an interesting chapter in the rich media tale.

    HTML Page Interference

    Closely related to the need for special server software to deliver rich media ads is the fear that those ads will interfere with web page content. For example, a glitch in serving a rich media ad will often cause other GIFs on the page to load incorrectly, resulting in lost content and dissatisfied users.

    This fear becomes even more real as rich media vendors encourage web publishers to have rich media served from a third-party server or ad serving location. Moreover, adding another interim point in the content delivery process has the potential to slow delivery, skew ads-served statistics, and misrepresent overall effectiveness.

    Publisher Performance Concerns

    Publisher performance concerns take us back to the issue of download times. Web publishers cannot afford to have content delivery slowed by even seconds. As a result, major portal vendors like Yahoo have specific requirements on the size of ads served, the animation that they contain, and the technologies that were used to develop them. For many of these publishers, the time to download content will directly affect user retention rate.

    Since rich media ads are known for being slower to download than GIFs, they do not map well against these publishers’ concerns. New technologies that facilitate rich media delivery on demand are in the works. But they are not currently well distributed to web publishers, advertising agencies, or web hosting facilities.

    So, Is It Hype or Hope?

    Much hype continues to swirl around the topic of rich media advertising. It is obvious that the click-through performance of GIF-based banner ads is declining, and rich media technology vendors would like us to believe that they have the solution — today.

    Yet, although it is true that rich media provides a better click-through rate, the performance, delivery, and acceptance issues that surround it present a formidable barrier that will be difficult to overcome. However, as more and more powerful media buyers like Proctor & Gamble and major auto manufacturers demand that web publishers embrace rich media, the hope may begin to overtake the hype.

    The hope is that rich media advertising will usher in a new generation in Internet advertising, providing an interactive, attractive, TV-like environment that will make users more comfortable with Internet advertising. And displacing the need to force users to navigate to different sites, different pages, and different environments to gather information and purchase products will make the Internet a friendlier place to do research and to shop.

    As the Internet advertising community continues to strive to meet ad spending projections for the Year 2000 — which I estimate to be worth $5.1 billion — it is important that these new technologies be developed, improved, and ultimately embraced.

    If you expect to see a lot of rich media advertising in the next 12 to 18 months, you are clearly being affected by the hype. But, keep that hope alive because rich media advertising has a bright future — one that will indeed be realized in the new millennium.

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