Step Into the Stream

“Streaming video will be the savior of Internet advertising,” says the confident rich-media sales guy, “And my company’s technology is going to pave the way… yadda yadda yadda….”

Not so fast there, Slick.

I’m tired of hearing about streaming video and Web advertising. It’s not quite ready to work. Not because of bandwidth, standards, or lack of breakthrough compression technology. It’s not because there aren’t a lot of streaming media consumers, and it’s not because penetration of streaming plug-ins is low.

It’s because the Web is not TV.

Without fail, every provider of streaming media says taking your TV spot and putting it on the Web is a great way to leverage existing assets and push your message online.

True, producing a TV spot (or almost any other professional video asset, for that matter) is an expensive undertaking. That does not mean throwing it online, whether in an ad unit or on your site, is effective online advertising.

Don’t get me wrong, it makes sense in some cases. Entertainment, especially movies and TV, is one example. Video can make sense in cases outside of entertainment, too, depending on your online communication objective. Streaming video is a good way to get the attention of senior-level advertisers and agency folks. It leverages high-profile, glamorous TV assets. Still, simply running a TV spot on the Web is a terrible idea.

Here’s why: You’re selling yourself short. You’re not taking full advantage of a medium that’s inherently interactive. Is watching TV interactive? In most cases, no (at least, not yet). The Web most certainly is interactive. Turning a TV spot into a Web ad without taking advantage of the interactivity is foolish.

For years, marketers (and programming execs, magazine editors, etc.) have struggled to add elements of interactivity to their media. Witness Winky Dink (also here), quite likely the earliest effort to make TV interactive. Look at pull-tabs in magazine ads or direct mail pieces; jingles that try to get you to sing along. All are attempts to make noninteractive media more interactive.

Interactivity is good. It helps people remember your brand and your message. It gets people involved. They like it.

Why in the world, when you are finally working in a medium offering a platform for interactivity, would you head in the opposite direction and just throw up something lean-back?

That’s the easy way out. It doesn’t require much creativity. It doesn’t add much in the way of production costs.

Streaming video can be made interactive. You can surround it with the same kinds of powerful tools we employ every day to elicit qualified responses. You can even, through relatively new Flash MX capabilities, incorporate interactivity within video elements. Make an offer, float a poll, try a self-assessment quiz, ask trivia questions, use a Flash interface, let the user drag and drop video clips — something, anything! Engage. Don’t settle for the passiveness of most TV spots.

Even if you manage to come up with streaming video that makes sense and is interactive, it can be difficult to find a place to run it. Typically, sites are reluctant to accept a streaming video ad. When they do, many require the play be user initiated. Video cannot automatically play when a user lands on the page. In other cases, video can start, but the user “turns on” the audio. This may change with increasing popularity of floating ads, like Eyeblaster’s, that autoplay. But for now, it’s a significant limitation that almost defeats the purpose of video. If a TV viewer had the option to not play a TV spot, do you think she would? Based on various personal video recorder (PVR) stats, the answer is a resounding no.

As the lines between on- and offline get fuzzier, and with the migration of streaming media to other platforms (such as Real Networks’s recent deals with various set-top box manufacturers), streaming advertising will undoubtedly become more popular. I hope it will also become more interactive.

I’m not out to trash streaming video advertising. It has its place and can be made to work, and work well, in today’s environment. Provided you don’t forsake the interactive capabilities intrinsic to the medium.

I’d love to hear more from streaming media providers, or from advertisers with examples of interactive streaming media (not just “click here to play”). I’d love to see more demos that take advantage of interactivity, and I’d love to write a case study on an ad that uses video this way.

Perhaps I’ll be able to write it in this space. Streaming media gurus, I await your response to the challenge.

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