From Madison Avenue to Silicon Valley, Web marketers have watched as GIF banner ads on Web sites have failed to deliver many concrete sales. A recent Forrester Research Inc. report said banner ads were the least effective way to bring buyers to travel Web sites. The Cambridge, Mass., market researcher ranked banner ads below e-mail promotions and print, television and radio advertisements.
Advertising industry experts say people want to have more control over their Web experience than is offered by banner ads that simply send users to different Web sites. A new breed of rich-media online advertising from companies such as PointRoll, Bluestreak.com Inc. and Enliven Inc. is looking to build brand awareness and ultimately sales by enabling greater reader interaction.
Giving users more control is a primary goal of new technology from PointRoll. The Philadelphia-based company last week introduced TopRoll, an upgrade of its namesake technology for delivering mouse-over advertising on Web pages.
TopRoll places small icons on a 30-by-728-pixel bar on a Web page. When a Web surfer rolls the mouse over an icon, a 200-by-728-pixel advertisement pops up. The user can browse on the ad and even click through to the advertisers Web site or promotion, or the ad simply disappears if the mouse is rolled to another part of the screen.
"The beauty of PointRolls technology is that it eliminates a latency problem from the consumer experience," said Andrew Pakula, co-founder and CEO of Orb Inc., a New York-based Web marketing agency that has already begun to use PointRolls mouse-over technology for its clients.
Bluestreak, of Newport, R.I., this spring introduced capabilities for reporting and advertisement management to its namesake rich-media server. Bluestreaks streaming audio and video ads for clients such as The Gillette Co. are not plug-ins, which makes them easily viewable by most consumers.
Enliven, of Waltham, Mass., last month introduced a suite of applications for Macromedia Inc. platforms that enables developers at advertising companies and Web publishers to create rich-media ads. The tools—Enliven for Macromedia Flash, Enliven for GIF and Enliven for Macromedia Director—can be used to develop a range of ads, from animated GIF banners to complex audio/video streaming-media ads.
Rich-media advertisements arent without flaws. The need for greater bandwidth is one concern. Some complain about the longer production time for online ads that use these newer technologies—about two or three days for a mouse-over ad in contrast with a day or so for banners. However, "most rich-media companies build the ads on their own servers, so clients dont have to," said Jeremy Lockhorn, director of media technologies at iFrontier, an interactive ad agency in Philadelphia that has created online ads for Universal Studios Home Video and Schering-Plough Corp. "Its almost an [application service provider]-type offering."
Early results look promising. Merrill Lynch & Co. has noticed an uptick in interest with its rich-media solutions, in contrast with previous GIF banner-based campaigns. From landing more page views to delivering more marketing information, the financial services company has turned its online presence into a real-time experience.
"We embedded our Market Pulse and stock quote features into scrolling banners on Yahoo, which fostered more interaction," said Jyoti Chopra, director of client acquisition at Merrill Lynchs Private Client Group, in Pennington, N.J. "With all of the tools and applications, it adds up to a far richer user experience."
Despite jazzy new marketing tools, its premature to anoint rich media as the next spark for Web advertising. "The challenge with online advertising as a whole is that theres general Web disillusionment," said Stephan Tornquist, co-founder of Bluestreak. "Rich media provides a solution but in an environment thats uncertain."
And rich media is too young to have shown many measurable results. Web advertisers are demanding more bottom-line results; in other words, a high click-through ad rate isnt enough anymore. Orb and Enliven track Web surfers to see whether online ads lead to sales. Enliven has seen an eightfold increase in responses to ads that allow consumers to interact in the ad space, compared with click-through ads.
PointRoll claims that mouse-over ads garner a 12 percent to 17 percent interaction rate, far higher than GIF banners rate of less than 1 percent. But advertising professionals and analysts agree that a rich-media ads content is the crucial factor, not the format.
"We believe in complete advertising accountability," Orbs Pakula said. "Even if a Web video attracts a lot of eyeballs, it must deliver back and prove cost-efficient. At the end of the day, it has to move the needle."