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Thinking Outside the Box: Floating Ads Hit the Mainstream

You're surfing along at Speedvision.com, checking out the latest NASCAR results, when suddenly the screen begins to go dark and keeps getting darker. Once the content is nearly completely obscured by darkness, a hand emerges from the bottom left-hand side of the page and sparks up a Zippo lighter -- slowly illuminating the page again before the hand disappears.

It's eye-catching, it's engaging, it tells a story, and it's an example of the latest wave of online rich media advertising. They've been called various things -- "page takeovers", "floating ads", and "outside the banner ads" -- but, whatever the name, they're catching on in a big way.

"I think it's one of the most exciting innovations on the Web this year for advertising. I love the idea of it," said Brian Cavoli, director of innovations for Carat Interactive. "I think they're entertaining and they really give you a chance to brand your product easier than any other method out there."

These ads themselves -- these showy, moving executions that dance on top of, glide over, or otherwise appear on top of a page's content -- are really nothing new. Basically, they use DHTML technology, which has been around for years. What's new is the way that three companies -- United Virtualities, Eyeblaster, and Ad4Ever -- have packaged the technology for easier deployment and tracking. Rather than having to custom code every ad for each site and page on which they appear, these companies are helping make this new form of rich media a realistic possibility.

"In my mind," said Joe Apprendi, executive vice president at Eyeblaster (and a former 24/7 Media exec), "the only thing that's been holding up rich media has been process and cost."

Although these companies' effort to propel this "outside the box" advertising into the mainstream is undoubtedly important, other factors are probably more critical. First is the growth of broadband connections -- with more bandwidth, there's room to send out bigger, richer files. A J.D. Power and Associates study released last month found that 13 percent of all residential ISP subscriptions in the US were high-speed connections, compared to just 5 percent in 2000. Secondly, the dot-com bust and the overall advertising downturn have forced publishers to become more inventive and accommodating -- and to focus more on the branding capabilities of online media.

"All of a sudden everybody's waking up and saying 'Let's do more. I can't just sit back and take an IO and not do anything,'" said Apprendi. "I think a soft ad market and a soft economy is going to take the Internet to the next level."

So far, plenty of big-name advertisers have signed on for that ride to the next level. Eyeblaster's technology has been used by advertisers like Adidas, Warner Bros., Nissan, Coca-Cola, Universal Studios, and Toyota, while Ad4Ever's users include McDonald's and General Motors. United Virtualities, with its Shoshkeles, has been utilized by Monster.com, The Boston Globe, and Warner Bros.

By all reports, the response to the ads that have been out there so far has been generally quite positive. According to Eyeblaster, one consumer liked the Zippo campaign enough to write an e-mail to the site on which it appeared. But some fear that this more-intrusive technology could be ripe for exploitation.

"The technology is really great and really interesting, but you have to have the right creative message," said Doug Jaeger, interactive creative director at TBWA\Chiat\Day. "I hope people in the industry know when and where to use it so it doesn't become a hated way of advertising."

Jaeger isn't the only one to express such concerns. After X10's ubiquitous pop-under ads gave the format a bad name, there's a concern that any of the more intrusive ad formats could wear out their welcome with consumers, if the creative isn't of a certain standard.

"If it's great, entertaining, creative well-placed -- whether it's a banner ad or a full screen commercial -- you're going to find consumers stimulated by it," said Apprendi. "But if it's bad creative badly placed, consumers are going to be less receptive."

So far, the jury is still out on whether these ads are really effective for branding purposes -- and, of course, the quality of the creative will have an influence. But, so far, the click-through rates have been encouraging, leading United Virtualities to consider pushing the direct response capabilities of the technology.

"I think the first people who were intrigued by it wanted pure branding," said Debra Brown, chief executive officer of United Virtualities. "I think as people understand the functionality of the technology, there's no question that they'll see the direct marketing uses."

Brown touts the ability to conduct a transaction right within the rich media ad itself, rather than requiring the person to visit a Web site. The ad could also be used to capture data (like an e-mail address) or it could be an application -- such as a map or a database search engine. The uses of this type of technology are really just beginning to be explored.

The most positive thing for advertisers, though, is the fact that -- unlike streaming, iTV, or wireless -- this is something that can be explored today. Cavoli at Carat talks of clients' reactions when he shows them demonstrations of the new technology.

"It's really exciting and this stuff gets the most interest out of them," he said. "Stuff like streaming is kind of 'wow', but it doesn't really impact them today. This is something that gets them excited today."


Pamela Parker, Internet.com. September 5, 2001

Copyright © 2001 INT Media Group, Inc.. All rights reserved.