March 4, 2004, 12:00 AM

The Big Production

Moving pictures grab a bigger role on marketers` sites as rich media steps out of the wings. The result: More engaged customers who spend more.

By Mary Wagner

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what’s the value of a picture that moves? Specifically, a web-delivered picture that moves at the direction of an online shopper? The latter is a loose definition of the kind of experience being served up to online consumers via fast-proliferating rich media technology, and the former is a question that online marketers are just now attempting to settle for themselves.

To demonstrate products in a way that static images cannot, in a bid for bigger sales, or simply to keep up with the competition, marketers are supplementing standard text and image in online displays with rich media. These features let the user zoom in on a product image or rotate it for a 3-D view; add to, subtract from, or otherwise alter elements of an image or graphic; sample audio clips and view streamed video right off a marketer’s web site. Rich media technology goes beyond the ability to click a button that just swaps one product photo for another to show a closer view or a different angle to support a more dynamic interactive customer experience.

From a technology perspective, drawing a tight circle around what constitutes rich media and what doesn’t is something of a debate. “The easy definition of rich media is that it allows user interaction or that it contains audio or video,” says Jupiter Research analyst Nate Elliott. That definition excludes gif and jpeg files, typically the format of static online product images. Although rich media generally provides the user with a file such as an image that he can manipulate, that’s not always the case. “You can’t define rich media simply as what the user sees or how rich that experience is. A feature that allows no user interaction whatsoever, but is created in Flash (a popular animation tool for web developers requiring a plug-in viewer that has near-ubiquitous penetration among web users) would have to be considered rich media,” says Elliott.

Such considerations make estimating the market size for rich media technology and applications a moving target. Jupiter estimates that last year, 11% of online ad spending was for ads delivered in a rich media or streaming format versus traditional online ad formats such as static gif and jpeg files or text. Statistics on the number of online marketers using rich media as content on their sites are harder to come by, though it’s a number that’s increasing as the drivers of rich media use trend upward.

One of those drivers is an increase in computer processor power. “As time goes on, the user’s computer becomes more powerful,” says Matthew Summers, president of Provis Media Group, an interactive agency based in Wilmington, N.C. “Five years ago, users’ machines could not handle this kind of content.” Though concerns about connection speed at the user end have held some online marketers back from adding rich media features best accessed through a high-speed connection, that concern is lessening as broadband penetration into U.S. households creeps up. Already, broadband Internet access is in 38% of American households, according to researchers Nielsen/NetRatings. Among Internet buyers, according to BizRate.com Inc., broadband penetration is even higher, about two-thirds.

Beyond the Wow!

In addition, the breakthrough that Intel Corp. announced last month may make consumers’ PCs virtually moving bazaars. Intel has developed a technology that communicates through optics rather than electrical impulses, promising to increase bandwidth capacity tenfold, the company reported at its Intel Developer Forum last month. It said its technology could deliver information at speeds 50 times faster than previous records, opening up a whole new market for rich media on the Internet.

But even without breakthroughs in bandwidths and speed, another driver pushing rich media into wider use among online marketers is the enthusiasm of the web development community. “Rich media is currently being defined by web developers,” Summers says. “Programmers decide to try this or that, and once people see what’s been done, they add to their own definition of rich media. They are defining what rich media is every day by building these applications.”

While there’s an undeniable “Wow” factor at the richer end of rich media-try configuring a car at one of the car manufacturer sites-marketers who believe this element alone is enough to drive real benefit from putting rich media on their site should think again, experts say.

“The Internet is a task-oriented medium. People are online because they are looking to do something-buy a car, get a date, find a product,” says Forrester Research Inc. analyst Chris Charron, who follows the use of rich media in advertising. “Any marketer who thinks consumers will be interested in watching rich media advertising like they watch TV is mistaken.”

While that may be true for rich media ads that pop up in the user’s browser in a way that the user does not control, athletic shoe manufacturer Reebok International Ltd. has found that consumers will voluntarily flock to a site-and register-if the rich media offering is entertaining enough. Reebok.com has previously streamed its TV commercials on the site, but last year’s Super Bowl marked the first time the site was tightly integrated into Reebok’s marketing efforts. That’s when a 60-second spot that ran during the game introduced Reebok’s “Terry Tate, office linebacker.” The TV spot drove viewers to Reebok.com to view a 4-minute streamed video on the same character. To see the video, site visitors had to register.

As buzz about the TV spot peaked after the game, Reebok.com was streaming as many as 20 video views per second and gathering six to eight registrations per second. Content delivery network Akamai Technologies Inc., which Reebok already was using to deliver rich media on the site, helped Reebok.com maintain a consistent performance in delivering the video streams as traffic surged. Ultimately, the video generated about 20 million views and built a database of 1 million people who’d registered as members of “Terry’s Hit Squad” to see the clip online.

What’s the buzz

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