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Rich Media - Exploring New Territory

Until recently, audio, video, Flash, and static graphics were all independent components used as enhancements to text based messages on the Internet. We're now seeing technological breakthroughs that allow us to combine these various elements into exciting web-based presentations that not only simulate our television experience but also take us to a whole new level of user interactivity. This technology is called Rich Media.

Rich Media is comprised of a combination of audio, video, graphics, and other techniques that, when put together, create an Internet experience that is personal, relevant, and largely unmatched by other print or broadcast media.

Rich Media is in its infancy but companies cannot afford to ignore its' potential impact as a business tool. The "dot bomb" crash in April, 2000, notwithstanding, the Internet is still the fastest growing medium in history and continues to attract thousands of new users everyday.

Most of us come to the Web to perform specific tasks. We send mail, we read the news, and we research topics of interest. We also come to the Web to browse and shop for goods and services. The Internet, unlike other forms of media, allows us to take immediate action. We're urged to click on banners, click on text links, write letters to the editor, create greeting cards, and upload our family pictures for the world to see. Is it any wonder that we have higher expectations of the Web than we do from browsing the newspaper or passively watching TV?

We are only beginning to understand how Internet advertising works and how it differs from that in the offline world. We do know that we've come a long way from the traditional banner ad which has been steadily losing its' effectiveness. When banner ads first appeared, they were a novelty, and click-thru rates were satisfyingly high. As the banner ad proliferated, and websites became increasingly cluttered, click-thru rates plummeted forcing advertisers to look for new ways to engage consumers.

Much has been written and said about the state of e-commerce and the emerging trend that puts consumers in a position of power as never before. The need to service, retain, and communicate with these consumers in more meaningful ways has provided the impetus behind the Rich Media movement.

Not only can we use Rich Media to attract consumers; we can craft messages that invite the visitor to interact with the message to obtain additional information or to take a desired action. Purchases could be made directly in the ad or banner window. A user could subscribe directly to a newsletter. Games could be demonstrated. Streaming audio or video clips could be viewed. And, all of this could be done without ever leaving the publisher's site. (A huge advantage for site owners.)

As the visitor enters a site, Rich Media can be deployed to inform him of weekly specials or product specific promotions. One click could then take him directly to the place where he can obtain further information about that product and order it. If the product is a complicated one requiring demonstration, he could be given the option of viewing a Flash or streaming presentation of the product being assembled. Text boxes could be synchronized with the demo to scroll frequently asked questions and answers about the product.

Pop-up windows, albeit annoying to some, have proven to be an effective method of engaging the consumer. These windows, known as intersitials or supersitials, are done with streaming audio, video or Flash, and usually appear when the user's browser is loading another page making that user a captive audience.

This kind of interactivity is what makes Rich Media advertising truly unique.

Many potential advertisers hesitate about venturing into Rich Media due to bandwidth constraints and the lack of widely available "high speed" connections. But broadband services are starting to spread, and, by 2004, 30 millions households should have broadband access. Business users will drive the trend. As more people experience media delivered via broadband in the workplace, they will demand that same experience on their home computers. (Currently there are 30 million workplace computers with broadband access compared to 4 million households.) *

One of the issues that have worried Web publishers is how to create "stickiness." Rich Media, used to deliver content as well as advertising, provides the tool. People are sensory by nature and respond more emotionally to sound and moving objects than they do to still images and static text. Since most purchasing is done on an emotional level, Rich Media presentations often provide that extra impetus to close the sale.

As site publishers and advertisers become more familiar with Rich Media and its' interactive nature, we'll begin to see more sophisticated methods of engaging the visitor emerge. Using extensive databases based on consumer preferences and lifestyles, advertisers will be able to deliver highly targeted messages. (We've already seen this begin to happen as Internet radio stations insert customized messages to generate advertising revenue.) Retailers will employ Rich Media techniques to offer better customer service and to fine-tune their product offerings. Educators will use it to make their sites more meaningful and add interactivity to workbooks and lessons.

It's clear that advertisers and site publishers will have to weigh the costs of producing Rich Media versus the benefits that they hope to receive. As technology moves inexorably forward, however, and bandwidth becomes more plentiful, users will come to have higher and more sophisticated expectations of what they see and hear on the Web. The opportunities afforded by Rich Media ? interactivity, sound, motion, and text all bundled into one smoothly delivered presentation ? cannot be ignored.

* Cahners In-Stat group at http://www.instat.com

Ronni Rhodes is the owner of WBC Imaging, an Internet company that specializes in web site enhancement utilizing streaming media technology. With her husband, Don, a digital media engineer, they work with companies to incorporate streaming as part of successful and meaningful sales and marketing programs.

Please direct all questions and comments to: Ronni@wbcimaging.com 520-742-5780 http://www.wbcimaging.com

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