IQ Interactive Quarterly: Broad Options

As broadband acceptance grows, the ways in which advertisers can use the medium increases.

Judging from the fervor with which America Online is pushing its broadband service, the volume of direct mailers offering DSL, and the flurry of late-night television commercials touting cable modem services like Time Warner’s Roadrunner, consumers could be forgiven for thinking that dial-up is dead.

Although dial-up still accounts for almost 70 percent of all Internet use at home, broadband is gaining momentum – and advertisers are gearing up to try to capitalize. A report issued in January by Nielsen/NetRatings showed that broadband use grew almost 60 percent in 2002, while dial-up usage shrank by 10 percent.

And broadband users may be more likely to respond to ads, since their fast connections mean no time lost waiting for downloads. “Seventy-five to 80 percent of the impressions we deliver are to broadband,” says Maggie Boyer, vice president of media at Avenue A. “The people who are consuming the ads online are those with broadband connections. It’ll be fun to watch how we stop talking about rich media like it’s an anomaly and start calling it media again. Not only is it the majority, it’s by far the majority. It’s the anomaly when we’re serving up to dial-up.”

All of which might seem to be an advertiser’s dream come true: Finally, an opportunity to combine the strengths of online marketing with the sophistication, emotional pull and reach of television ads. But the message resonating throughout the online advertising community is as much about temperance as it is about creative exuberance. Concerned about a potential backlash that could arise from indiscriminate use of sound, video and intrusive technologies, many agencies are cautioning clients that bells and whistles must add value, or risk becoming a detriment instead of an asset.

“Advertisers and agencies need to use it responsibly and sparingly, when it makes sense,” says Blair Shapiro, vice president and creative director for iTraffic, a unit of agency.com. “There will be a rush to, if you have the bandwidth, fill it up.” Shapiro, whose clients include the Discovery Channel, cautions that a message has to fit its specific medium. “When it’s done right, like with the Discovery Channel, it’s an entertainment-oriented client on an entertainment site, where sound makes sense because people are in that mindset. But if you’re surfing a heavy-duty news site and you’re at work and this screaming thing jumps out at you, you’re going to be turned off. That can have a negative impact.”

Lars Bastholm, creative director for the Danish agency Framfab – which designed the much-touted Nikefootball.com Web site – agrees. “On one hand I’m really excited about the new possibilities,” Bastholm says, “but on the other I’m worried that we’ll see a lot of sites that use these technologies because they are available, not because the communication goals warrant it.

“Think about how misused Flash has been over the years. Now imagine the same thing all over again, only with video. The horror. …”

To be effective, of course, ads designed for broadband must promote a product whose consumer base is likely to use the technology. “We’re selling premium automobiles to highly educated people,” says Phil Beinert, manager of CRM and e-business for Volvo Cars of North America. Designing bandwidth-needy campaigns makes sense for a company like Volvo, whose customers are likely to be technology’s early adopters. “Broadband campaigns are the Volvo sweet spot,” Beinert says. “They may not be the right thing for someone selling a different product. Yes, there’s critical mass [of broadband users], but it’s critical mass of a fairly unique segment because it still costs 50 bucks a month.”

Still, a recognition of the need for restraint has not diminished enthusiasm for what broadband offers to advertisers who figure out how to tap into the technology’s true potential. Dawn Winchester, vice president of client services at R/GA, says she believes the promise of broadband lies in combining a more immersive, multi-dimensional front-end interface with a data-heavy back end. “Bring data to people but give them a much more functional, expressive, rich front-end, allow them to see demos of products, or experience a product or brand through a gaming environment,” she says. “Do that on a top layer on top of the Web site they may be at.”

Nike’s multimedia Nikelab campaign, for which R/GA designed and built the Web site, is an example. The Web site features sound, video, and video game-style elements.

“It has some of the filmic qualities of a BMW film,” says Winchester, “but there are also games, demos, product pieces where you can get in and move a shoe around. There’s tremendous attention to sound and sound design. And it’s all in a flash interface, with a rich data back end. It’s at least a guidepost on the way to where we can go.”

Framfab’s Bastholm points to Sony’s Camcamtime site (which was discontinued last month) as an example of effective use of bandwidth capabilities, calling the site “groundbreaking in its user involvement and broadband utilization.” Camcamtime, a marketing tool for Sony in Japan, enabled users to upload to a server one second of a movie they shot themselves. A screensaver displayed on the site featured the video clips. “Basically, it’s a screensaver, but it’s a very unique one,” says Bastholm, who had no involvement in it. “Users ‘own’ one second of the ‘network clock’ that the screensaver displays. This means that Camcamtime contains 86,400 one-second movies created by someone somewhere in the world.”

For Sharon Katz, vice president and director of media at Modem Media, the key to success is translating “value exchange” to a broadband environment. “If you’re going to offer a recipe in a banner, it definitely offers value exchange,” Katz says. “If I’m going to do a recipe that’s just about making a sandwich and putting deli meat between two slices of bread, I don’t need broadband for that.”

For broadband, according to Katz, the ad might teach the user how to cook complex meals with many ingredients, offering different camera angles and an opportunity to zoom in on the saute pan, as well as enabling detailed textures and colors.

“People are using the Internet, they’re not watching it,” she says. “You need to provide value.”

Besides increasing creative capabilities, the ubiquity of broadband could make it easier to deliver rich targeted messages in the right time frame. “A lot of times in terms of media buying, people will tailor something that’s K-intensive [large files requiring a lot of bandwidth] to a weekday,” when most people are surfing the Web from high-speed connections at work, says iTraffic’s Shapiro. “And on the weekend you tend to run lower bandwidth because you think people are at home on a dialup.” That can prove difficult for a client like the Discovery Channel, which may be unable to promote a weekend show in the most effective way possible due to bandwidth restrictions. “Let’s say we have a show on Sunday night and we want to do a day-of media buy,” Shapiro says. “That will open up.”

And despite concerns that ad budgets will have to skyrocket to keep pace with the latest sound, video and other technologies, Beinert points out that multidigital platform campaigns could actually prove cost effective. “By producing a 30-second spot differently, I can repurpose it for online, DVD,” and other applications, he says. “Broadband adds one more digital platform so we can reuse assets in a different way.”

For media directors, the steady maturation of online advertising paved the way for acceptance of broadband capabilities. “Circa 1998 or ’99, we had a really hard time convincing anybody but hardcore direct-response marketers to advertise online,” says Avenue A’s Boyer. “My life today is completely different. I don’t feel like it’s an absurd story to tell that we can make an impactful creative unit [for online].”

Still, the greater willingness of clients to buy into the promise of broadband has many worried about a backlash. “Too much of anything is a bad thing,” says Shapiro, “and if everyone jumps on the bandwagon, all of a sudden consumers will react. Advertisers need to really be conscious of where they are, where the people are, where the units are running, and for what purpose.”

Boyer hopes consumers will be tolerant. “There will continue to be zealots that will abuse the capability we have now. I think even really reputable companies will,” she says. “But none of it is very damaging. I think users of the Internet have become accustomed to the fact that advertising online is paying their way for access to all of this content. There’s a tolerance that is growing.”

As advertisers try to tap broadband’s potential for both branding and sales objectives without annoying consumers, many also stress the need to do something more than simply run TV commercials online. But at least one element of TV advertising’s success might serve as an inspiration for online campaigns. Says R/GA’s Winchester: “I’m looking forward to the day when a rich media ad makes a consumer cry the way a TV campaign does.”

Hillary Rosner is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Co., who writes frequently about technology and the Internet.