Rich media provides a platform on which to build bolder strategy

If you think that rich media simply means puting a TV ad online, you’re missing out on a useful opportunity to be more effective with your online strategy, says Martin Croft.

Rich media is a driving force in the growth in online advertising budgets – the latest figures from the Internet Advertising Bureau UK, PricewaterhouseCoopers and the World Advertising Research Council, published today (Wednesday), show a 35% increase in expenditure on online display advertising to reach £2bn for the whole of 2006 – and Guy Phillipson, chief executive of the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) UK says: "Much of this growth in display revenue can be attributed to the growing use of rich media ad formats."

As more consumer and business internet users get better computers and sign up for broadband connections, they can cope with bigger file sizes, which means online ads can have more bells and whistles, the experts agree – which means more use of rich media.

But few marketing directors really understand rich media. Most think that if they put their latest television ads on their website, then they are at the cutting edge of rich media. But the experts say it means much more than just running a few TV ads on a site.

In fact, if marketing directors don’t understand what rich media is, they have some justification for their confusion, as the exact definition of what constitutes rich media is something of a moveable feast.

James Booth, vice-president of rich media at DoubleClick EMEA, says that while rich media may involve video footage, it does not have to. What really defines it is added layers of content and interactivity, either for the site visitor or site owner.

To put it more bluntly, a rich media ad is an ad format that involves added functionality for someone – either viewer or advertiser or both: that added functionality is supposed to make it more valuable and so justifies the site owner or ad serving network charging a premium price for it.

Marco Scarola, marketing and production director of digital marketing solutions company EyeBlaster, says: "Different content types can be used to create online ads: text, jpeg, Flash, video and more. Such content differs in its ‘richness’ – in other words, in its complexity and file size. But it’s not always this simple, of course. Using non-rich content such as an animated Gif in a ‘rich format’ such as an expandable banner, and a rich media delivery mechanism, you will still have a rich media ad! It’s the quality and size of content that puts the ‘rich’ into rich media."

In the early days, rich media tended to mean pop-ups and other interruptive advertising formats. But, argues Booth, the area has evolved in two ways. First, the IAB introduced a set of guidelines, the Universal Advertising Package, that effectively banned the most intrusive types of ads; and secondly, technology has moved on. "Some of the techniques that would have been classed as rich media four years ago are just standard online ads today," Booth points out.

Dan Clays, managing director of digital media specialist BLM Quantum, says that online audiences tend to welcome innovative advertising formats – "so long as they are not intrusive, in the way that pop-ups can be. It’s a question of context – it’s as if you were watching Lost on TV and someone stood between you and the screen. It would have an impact, but not a positive one."

Tom Bureau is managing director of online publishers CNET Networks UK. CNET has just launched a new rich media ad format on its site, Games Spot UK, which allows advertisers to effectively take over sections of the Games Spot site using background "kins". The first advertiser to use the new format was Sega, to coincide with the launch of the PS3 in the UK last week. Visitors to Games Spot’s PS3 pages were served an ad that included windows showing scenes from four Sega PS3 games. Clicking on of the windows allowed viewers to change the backgrounds for the site’s PS3 related pages to imagery relevant to that game.

Bureau says: "It’s about creating maximum impact for brand advertisers. It raises the level of engagement without being intrusive. The online ad market is driven by innovation, and this is a great solution that cuts through the clutter."

But rich media is not just about using shock and awe to grab consumers: in fact, some argue that its main use is in business-to-business applications. For example, Eddie Robins, technical director of rich media specialist Groovy Gecko, says that around 75% of his company’s business comes from either the business-to-business or charity sectors to consumer use – for instance, many companies use it for internal communications, he says.

As for putting "pretty TV ads on a page – that’s kind of a no brainer," Robins claims. "We’ve gone far beyond that. Only certain TV ads are worth putting on the web anyway." Real rich media – when it comes to TV-style imagery, anyway – is about creating video footage that fits very specific purposes, rather than just repurposing a flat and non-interactive TV ad, he says: "The whole page becomes a unified environment for delivering messages and creating interactivity."

Arguably, as EyeBlaster’s Marco Scarola points out, the very term "rich media" is likely to become redundant because all online display advertising online will eventually become rich. At present, though, ordinary, non-rich media ad formats such as banners are still widely used – as he says, "more than one-third of the ads we served globally last year were non-rich media".


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