Rich Media Ramblings

Ed Barnes has been innovating and creating in the rich media space since its inception. As Director of Ad Technologies at Tangozebra, Engineering Director at DoubleClick and Engineering Manager at...

... Google, Ed led a number of rich media focussed products from idea to global usage. His current role is Vice President for Rich Media at ADTECH, a division of AOL Networks, that provides technology to make it easier both for publishers to monetize their digital properties and for advertisers to reach their desired audience. Outside of work Ed can usually be found playing or watching sport, listening to music and persuading his wife that kicking footballs is THE most important skill to teach their one-year-old boy.

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9 May 2013 - 11:16am | posted by | 2 comments

The evolution of rich media

Hello. I’m Ed Barnes. Pleased to meet you. People call me a rich media expert and to be honest, if I’d spent the last 13 years in rich media product development and hadn’t built up some expertise, people would have to call me other names.

My plan is to write a series of blog posts about rich media and to try my hardest to tackle some important topics and hopefully spark some debate. Not this post though, sorry. This one is to tell the rich media story so far, setting the scene for future posts. Please read on, especially if you’re not entirely sure what rich media is and are just a little interested in how it evolved.

So what is rich media? I'll be honest with you, I've struggled to define this in the past. After a series of acquisitions landed me at Google I was tasked with presenting what we do to a group of Google computer scientists and product managers, who, incidentally, are all computer scientists. After a lot of baffled looks I decided to tell them what a rich media ad was not. It's not a text ad (I nearly lost the room at this point), it's not a static image ad, it's not an animated gif and it's not a flash animation with one click-through. If an ad is more interactive and engaging than that, through the usage of video, games, quizzes, polls, social interactions, rich animation and sometimes expansion beyond the banner, then let’s call it rich media. Finally, someone put their hand up and said, "Ah, you mean punch the monkey ads." Whilst tempted to reply using one of my favourite lines from the IT Crowd and ask him whether he was from the past, I accepted that yes, that probably was an example of a rich media ad, albeit from the 90s.

The birth
Talking of the 90s, let’s use two banners from that era to illustrate the difference between standard display ads and rich media ads – the world’s first standard display ad and the world’s first rich media ad.

Main Content: 

The world’s first display banner (AT&T, 1994)

The world's first rich media banner (Hewlett Packard, 1996)

The AT&T ad – an image with a click-through: not rich media. The HP ad – a full working version of Pong, running inside a banner: rich media! I could wax lyrical about this but would rather let you read about it from the guy who actually built it. If you’re willing to install the Shockwave plugin (yes, I said Shockwave) then you can even play the game on his site.

So from 1996 we had a medium for telling a brand story and adding value to consumers. We were in a great place for digital creative innovation through rich media… Behold the success stories and explosion of rich media… Or maybe not.

The dark ages

Admittedly I am massively exaggerating by calling it the dark ages as there have been some amazing and effective rich media executions since 1996. But unfortunately there was also a lot of abuse of the new functionality available. We had rich pop-ups – the creative may have been good but they were still pop-ups. Then when people started using pop-up blockers we gave them floating ads that covered the page in exactly the same way… They just weren't in a pop-up window. Then we had expands that often expanded on accidental rollover and obscured an important part of the site's navigation. This led to fake interaction rates and more importantly user frustration. To illustrate the sad state of affairs, at the User Experience conference 2004, John Boyd from Yahoo! and Christian Rohrer from eBay revealed, from a survey of 605 respondents, that:

● 59% of respondents said they disliked online advertising
● 68% called it “not relevant”
● 77% considered it “not creative”
● 86% described it as “disruptive”

The problem was that user experience wasn’t put first, the relationship with the page content wasn’t put first, there were no standards and there were (and still are) irresponsible rich media vendors. As Ari Paparo put it, “The rich media business in display advertising is a poster child for dysfunction and lack of scale.” For more ranting about the state of rich media, please read Ari’s great blog post here. I don’t disagree with anything he says.

The renaissance

Let me end on a positive note. We are in the middle of a rich media renaissance. Brands have realised that the user’s experience with the ad is just as important as the message. Giving them a rich, page covering, entertaining advertisement is much more effective when they have indicated, through a click or a prolonged rollover, that they would like to experience it. Sensible guidelines are starting to emerge through initiatives like the IAB’s Rising Stars, and standards, such as IAB SafeFrame, will have to be adopted by all rich media vendors if rich media has any future in the programmatic world. Oh, and let’s not forget that in tablets and mobiles, consumers are now using devices that are perfect for the interactivity that rich media offers. We’re in an exciting time for rich media and in my next blog post I will try and remember this whilst I pick holes in, and complain about, as much of the industry as I can.

Ed Barnes is vice president for rich media at ADTECH


22 May 2013 - 20:50

Ed, that was a nice synopsis. I especially like your mention of the user's indication of interest as a key to ad effectiveness. So many advertisers are still concerned about the number of impressions when they should be more focused on the level of engagement. Just because a user "saw" your ad doesn't mean they noticed it.

25 May 2013 - 07:28

Ed, I enjoyed the article, and look forward to future installments. Rich media to me means rich experience. A decade ago I was involved in online advertising training. One of the clients was the Home Office and my first presentation to them showed banners from over 5 years earlier still. One example was the "Catch the monkey" animated GIF; another was a banner that appeared to shake, purporting to be able to sort out your computer system. Comically, over 15 years later, these "creative (ahem) concepts are still being used. Although you have to be on a pretty dire site to see that kind of ad, similar tactics can be seen in higher profile display across more mainstream media. You don't need to look far to see campaigns with deliberately small close buttons to inflate unintentional responses, or ambiguous messaging that won't deliver satisfaction once clicked. This may in many cases be termed rich media, but it isn't a rich experience.

The first campaign I worked on which was described at the time as rich media, was the launch of Sky Digital in 1999. It was a totally Flash-based campaign of multi-sized banner formats clicking through to an HTML-based interstitial. That's how the press coverage described it at the time, but in fact in today's terms it was neither rich media or an interstitial. Today we'd call it "some banners" and "a 1 page microsite". Probably a very bad one as well, although at the time it was cutting-edge (honest!!)

Rich media now is anything display-based that goes beyond a visual-only, click-through, display format. If it expands, shunts, pops, shouts, farts - it's rich media. I think that if the likes of Doubleclick and DG Mediamind (once Tangozebra and Eyeblaster!) have categorised a rich media format, and are selling it as a format, it should no longer be considered rich media. I'd like to see rich media once again used to describe non-standard, innovative, interactive formats. Flashtalking and the aforementioned still offer advertisers, through their agencies, the chance to do innovative stuff. Most of the "rich" formats out there were born of agencies' innovative ideas that then went mainstream.

To summarise, it all started with "new media". It's no longer new - far from it. Many agencies are dropping the word "digital"; everything is digital these days, making it an unfashionable term and causing a surge of agency dissociation. Likewise, let's put the "rich" back into rich media.


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