What’s the Matter With Rich Media?

How many times have any we been told the online advertising business is booming? If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been told, I wouldn’t ever have to work again.

But is online advertising really working for everyone?

I’m no scientist, researcher, or expert on super-scientific methods of proving how humans behave online, but I do know something about making online ads, be they plain, rich, video, what have you. What gets me is too many people jump into rich media advertising with no idea of what they’re getting into. The scientific approach just isn’t the best way to justify doing it.

Humans are known for using data to make decisions. I’m not saying that’s a failed premise, but great things can also happen spontaneously and creatively. Maybe the fact I’m a creative makes me biased. Nonetheless, a little common sense is needed beyond any fact-proving super-computer.

The other day, the Nielsen Norman Group released an eye-tracking study. It’s a comprehensive analysis of how people look at Web pages and, yes, sometimes online ads. If you take a look, you’ll see the compelling Web site picture with colored blobs on it. They’re not a rainfall total, they’re the cumulative eye paths of tested users.

The study finds for the most part, users have become sophisticated and learned to tune out ads or things that look like ads. This I understood. I do it all the time. Without even trying, I know where things should and shouldn’t be (except on the new CNN site).

Though the Nielsen study focuses on effective Web site usability (not ads), you can’t really separate the two. Just as TV commercials are part of the TV experience, online ads are part of the online experience.

These studies are great; they bring attention to online for better or worse. What they don’t focus on is part and parcel of what any good marketer understands:

Context.

Context is the 800-pound gorilla in every conversation about the value, effectiveness, and education that a successful online marketing campaign can provide. It’s very important to track how people view something, but you can’t separate the user’s eye movement from the fact he’s actively pursuing something. That he’s in pursuit is what makes context such a factor in understanding value.

Looking at what kind of pursuit could take a hundred more columns, but let’s focus on a common pursuit: exploratory.

In exploratory mode, a user casually meanders around the Web to his favorite sites or content with the intent of spending some time with new stuff. In this mode, a user’s more likely to entertain or engage in an online ad. He has some time to waste. Maybe he doesn’t look at the ads directly, but if they’re attractive enough he might and then start to interact.

That’s why I make it a practice to show my clients the ad they’re buying in the context of the placement. Otherwise, as far as they’re concerned, I’m just showing them a print ad or a series of billboards or a bad prototype for a TV spot. No context for online ads is useless.

This isn’t a small subject, so I’ll further discuss it in future columns. Maybe in the interim, an eye-tracking study can be done on rich media ads, in placement, to help determine the best pattern of design and interaction.

Yes, rich media is good. But it’s only good if you know where and how it’s likely to be appreciated. Otherwise, it’s like a sermon at an orgy: a meaningful thing in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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