The Rich Ad Addendum

In a previous column, I described what makes up a successful rich ad. But that was many Internet years ago. Yesterday’s rule can be obsolete today.

It’s an important point. Online advertising is supported by the shifting sands of that great ambiguous thing we call technology. It’s a constant we deal with every day as the industry grows.

A rich online ad is like a three-act play, complete with a beginning, a middle and an end. It goes something like this:

Act I: The Interaction Layer. This is where audience interest must be piqued. Elevate intrigue so the user wants to start playing with your premise.

Act II: The Engagement Layer. Your audience is involved as deeply as possible, playing with games, polls, photos, video, whatever. It should all be entertaining and not too indulgent. Attention spans aren’t getting any longer these days.

Act III: The Reward Layer. The audience wants a payoff for time spent, whether it’s a freebie, some bonus content, or an invite to a relevant e-mail newsletter. Make it a worthwhile reward. A cheap gift is as good as giving the user a chance to slap your brand in the face.

To some, this is old hat. Some online advertisers may only need to accomplish two of the three acts, some only one.

I’m reminded of Cisco’s new “The Human Network” ads. Though beautiful, they stay at act I and make you click to view acts II and III in their entirety. In other words, they send you to a Web site. Not optimal for such a beautiful beginning.

Other ads do a great job of annoying you. Think of LowerMyBills’ trio of dancing silhouettes. They may get you to read the ad, but the irritating dancing never seems to end. But our collective patience does.

So what’s changed now?

Video has changed many things about online ads, of course, including the way they’re portrayed. With file size limitations relaxing, there’s a lot more you can put in an ad. But this is also where problems start happening.

Just because you can put more in an online ad doesn’t mean you should. And just because you have some video doesn’t mean you should put that in, either. This is how technology leads us down the wrong path.

The riverbed that shapes the stones of these ads is users. They’re open to a few things: quality (image, video, sound), humor, and beautiful copy.

We don’t arrive at what appeals to them by guessing. We measure. We experiment. We test the limits of the right balance of beauty and information. Through the collective inputs of user experiences every day, we must constantly match the level of aesthetic and interactive aptitude to the work we produce.

Technology is critical to turning the millwheel in which we toil. We’re beleaguered by constant change, yet it’s part of the industry’s excitement.

Let’s not forget that with all these influences, we’re still trying to tell a story, that three-act play. No matter what new technology comes along, humans are still interested in the familiar: a story, an image — all the things that lure us into the theater.

Yet online advertisers must still cram those three acts into just under 15 seconds. Let’s be glad some things don’t change, even if they do get shorter.

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