Rich Media Trends

In August 2001, I predicted a significant shift in the trend of rich media in the online advertising space. My theory was that we were going to see a change in the way things in the industry had “traditionally” been done — which was that ad agencies were driving the rich media technology development. My thought was that publishers were about to step into the lead. I was right, and this trend is continuing.

So, as the development of rich media progresses, let’s talk about various shifts I see going on right now and what these trends mean to all the parties involved — advertisers, agencies, and publishers.

Trend 1: Publishers are productizing rich media ad solutions.

As I stated in the aforementioned article, publishers are responding to a number of market pressures.

First, publishers have significantly “streamlined” their operations by cutting staff. This means that they have fewer people (with less experience) to implement complex campaigns and must simplify the way they integrate rich media campaigns. As a result, only the simplest implementations of rich media will be accepted as part of normal media buys.

This has had a chilling effect on third-party rich media providers, since many solutions require the publisher to jump through a series of hoops to run the creative types. The broad winner here is Flash, which has become the de facto standard for rich media advertising online. (See Trend 3, below.) The losers will be any rich media technologies that are complicated to implement and are targeted toward cross-publisher media buys.

Second, publishers have greater need than ever to differentiate themselves to advertisers by offering exciting and effective ad solutions. This means that they don’t want to focus on being part of a cross-publisher media buy. Publishers want to get media dollars that are uniquely allocated to them. This is driving publishers’ launching of customized “products” that their sales forces can offer to advertisers.

Great examples of this:

  • MSN is offering proprietary DHTML solutions through its Advantage Marketing program.
  • Eyeblaster, Ad4ever, and United Virtualities all license their products to publishers, whose sales forces can then use them as a point of differentiation.
  • Bluestreak has licensed its video products to AOL (a Bluestreak investor), which sells them to advertisers on its Moviefone property.

Trend 2: Agencies want to use standard design tools to build rich media ads.

Creative teams within agencies are billed out at an hourly rate. Agencies don’t want to spend extra time (read: money) getting their creative teams up to speed on the specialized tools needed to build an unusual rich media ad.

To add to this problem, designers demand an incredible amount of flexibility when building solutions. They hate working within constraints, and online advertising is all about constraints. If designers are going to build specialty rich media creative, they want to use tools they’re familiar with — Photoshop, Flash, Fireworks, and so on.

If a designer must use a custom specialty tool to build a special rich media type, the tools has to be either wizard-based and extremely simple or robust and very powerful. The problem is that the simple tools often don’t give designers enough flexibility and the powerful tools take too long to learn.

This has led to some major shifts in the industry. A few years ago, everything in rich media ad technology was Java-based. Today, everything is Flash-based. The long-standing rich media firms have all released Flash solutions, from Enliven to Bluestreak to Unicast. And most of the new rich media technology that has hit the street in the past year is some combination of Flash and DHTML.

Trend 3: Advertisers are not pushing agencies and publishers on which rich media technologies to use.

There was a time when advertisers tended to be extremely involved in pushing agencies to use specific third-party rich media solutions, and they leaned on the publishers to get that technology approved. Those days are nearly over. The market has matured to the point where the technologies available can meet advertiser demand without requiring a lot of extra work.

Solutions from all the veterans are very robust and meet most customer needs — Enliven and Unicast have been providing Flash-based solutions for years. Bluestreak just launched a new Flash solution this week that captures tracking information from Flash creatives and reports on it. Between Eyeblaster, United Virtualities, and Ad4ever, there are plenty of off-the-shelf solutions available for layers-based advertising. Point·Roll’s technology has been implemented often enough that it has achieved good penetration in the rollover space.

Advertisers don’t care so much what’s under the hood — they care about results, and the agencies and publishers have solutions that can easily be employed without twisting any arms or performing “unnatural acts.” This makes the position of new players in the medium rather tenuous, since they have a lot of ground to cover in a tough climate. It isn’t impossible, just difficult, because there are many mature solutions on the market.

This leads back to Trend 2. The newer technology vendors are discovering the lay of the land very early and are mainly focusing on offering solutions to publishers.

These trends may or may not be long-lived. It will be interesting to watch what happens over the next six months as the market (if the analysts are correct) continues to stabilize and advertiser growth on the Internet increases more quickly.

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