A rich media wish list

iMedia Connection
Is rich media lost?

A recent flutter of rich media vendor announcements has left me and a lot of the industry largely underwhelmed.

Here’s a quick play-by-play, followed by reasons why the rich media landscape is getting boring:

  • Burst Media / PointRoll: an ad network can now serve rich media ad units from a specific vendor.
  • YuMe / PointRoll: a video ad network can now serve rich media ad units from a specific vendor.
  • DoubleClick / Gigya: DoubleClick can now widgetize its rich media banners. Sounds like the Clearspring / PointRoll announcement — last December.
  • Eyeblaster is busy IPOing.

So once upon a time, rich media was new. PointRoll was pioneering expandables, and Klipmart was making moves on the video front. Now rich media vendors have largely commoditized duplicated products.

The fact that they’re now pursuing integration with video advertising is expected, and the fact that they’re widgetizing their banners is only interesting to the extent that marketers and agencies can make creative that a user would even want to grab and share. In fact, in a paradigm where two clicks in a hundred are considered exemplary, what smaller fraction is going to want to save the ad and take it with them?

But all hope is not lost for rich media. In fact, there are four things that could bring sexy back to rich media, as well as some encouraging signs that it’s already on its way to success.

Simplify integration

Rich media is still a labor-intensive process to integrate. With the advent of distributed media (media players, widgets, apps), things are getting more complicated, not simpler.

Less time spent on integration is more time spent on creative. Here are two examples of how to simplify rich media integration on the publisher side, which in turn makes things easier on the agencies:

The Rubicon Project
Rubicon is an ad network optimization system. Publishers drop in Rubicon’s code, and through that code, Rubicon serves ads from any number of ad networks (60 and counting) and optimizes for the highest eCPM. Whatever rich media campaigns an ad network is already running can display on the publisher’s site, meaning they don’t have to do any site-specific rich media integration. And agencies can stop worrying about preferred vendors, lag time for publishers to integrate new vendors and other obstacles. As Frank Addante, CEO of Rubicon, explains, “We don’t have any preference to an ad network or a website or any one rich media vendor. Our job is to make sure they’re all easy to use and let the best ones win.”

Panache has created the Panache Universal Media Acceptor (PUMA) that is a plug-in compatible with any Flash-based or Silverlight-based media players. For video publishers who have integrated the plug-in, they can receive ads from multiple third-party video ad networks, multiple third-party video ad servers and multiple rich media vendors through just dropping one piece of code. It cuts down on the complication and integration for publishers, which makes life easier for marketers braving video and in-video ads and rich media campaigns. Instead of many vendors connecting to many publishers, publishers (through one plug-in) can access many vendors, servers and networks.

These two are certainly not the only examples of making rich media simpler. But they’re of a qualitatively different nature than ad networks plus rich media vendor partnerships, which are important to establish but not as exciting.

“Show me the creative!”

Matt Rosenberg, group director, media and entertainment at Organic, cuts to the chase: “Why do we assume that just because it’s a new format, people care? No consumer in the world is looking to interact with the next ad format.”

Addante at Rubicon adds, “I think because people are so focused on integration and making these things work, they’re spending less time on the creative element. The content has to be compelling. People are missing that point. At the end of the day, consumers don’t care about the technology behind it — they care about the content.”

How about a marketing campaign that successfully embraces rich media, video and widget functionality? Now that would be interesting. Fortunately for media companies — especially of the theatrical and sports genres — their content is already well-suited to take advantage of those intersections. iMedia covered an exemplary Paramount Vantage campaign here.

Clearspring, a leading widget distribution platform, has rich media-enabled campaigns in progress with Sundance and TLC (Ford Sync and Bravo are launching shortly), but no word yet on how they’re performing.

And yet as long as we’re talking about CTRs in the order of a couple of percentage points, I still feel like we’re missing out on a major creative opportunity. Targeting is better than it’s ever been, we know more than we’ve ever known about who is seeing our ads, we can create any iteration of experiences, but is that the best we can do with 300×250 or 728×90 pixels?

Commit to engagement metrics

The promise of rich media is that it enables more engaging, interactive experiences between consumers and advertising messages. It’s so compelling in fact that ideally rich media creative stands on its own as an ad unit and delivers the kind of experience you’d get on a microsite.

As the industry as a whole is figuring out what happens after the click (thanks to comScore for enlightening research on the fact that the click is the tip of the metrics iceberg), and as we try to figure out what engagement means and how we should measure it, the subject is especially relevant as it relates to rich media. Rich media enables so many kinds of cool experiences, but we need to standardize (or try to standardize) how we measure its efficacy. Rich media vendors, widget companies and other players are taking steps in that direction, but there’s a burden on agencies to get involved, too.

Rick Corteville, head of digital of the EMEA region for Universal McCann, explains, “Everyone defines engagement differently. Engagement is a series of metrics that boil up into what one would consider an effective brand interaction. Agencies are copping out of the responsibility of defining that and keeping it vague. No one is trying to standardize that and say, for example, that ‘engagement is these three metrics.’ That’s an opportunity on agency and vendor sides to put a stake in the ground and spark controversy. At least it’s something other than us just speaking in the amorphous.”

Matt Rosenberg at Organic agrees it’s a task that we need to tackle, but that it’s not an easy one. If it’s now relatively straightforward to measure “audio on/off” and “play again” interaction in a rich media unit, for example, what if you could rotate a car in 3D? How do you measure that, or standardize its measurement? Rosenberg concedes, “If you can measure it against a set of standards, it’s not new.”

Kudos to VideoEgg for pioneering a new video plus rich media format (AdFrames) and throwing CPMs out the door in favor of a CPE (cost per engagement) metric. While there is a long road ahead to determine how to define engagement, and perhaps telescope pricing (depending on how long a user interacted with the unit, whether they shared it, etc.), VideoEgg at least committed to making the metrics jump. Given their favor on Madison Avenue, it could accelerate other businesses to follow suit.

A creative Renaissance

Two more interesting developments with rich media and video:

What if we pushed our conception of rich media a few steps further? If rich media technology makes otherwise static content more engaging, couldn’t rich media make otherwise linear video content more engaging? I don’t mean adding rich media overlays to video, I mean something altogether different and otherwise out there. Why limit rich media technology to ads, or even to ads-as-content? What is the possibility of rich media within the actual content itself?

Three interesting steps in that direction:

  • EyeWonder can now stream live video through its units. That could have interesting implications for location-based advertising and for live events, for example, if you were streaming live content through an ad unit to drive digital tune-in.
  • DoubleClick + Flash 9+ HD means you can now serve HD videos through DoubleClick’s rich media units (full screen optional). Epson gave it a roll with Butler, Shine, Stern and Partners. Load time for me was prohibitively slow, but you can check out the creative here.
  • Adobe Pacifica. It’s a stealth operation that is doing something with Flash and VoIP. Banners + VoIP? Now that is interesting.

Could we be on the verge of a creative Renaissance?

Comments and dissenting opinions welcome below, or contact me.

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