Advertisers on the never-ending hunt for ways to engage are now counting on consumers to be the proactive ones, by "pulling" marketing messages off the Internet and into their homes—specifically, onto their computer desktops. Companies from Purina to Best Buy are experimenting with new ad vehicles to offer rich brand experiences through desktop applications.
"If you can actually get any real estate on the desktop and have a persistent presence, it's the Holy Grail," said Karen Katz, evp of FilmLoop, a photo-sharing service launching in November that will help brands get invited onto consumer desktops.
Like many seemingly new interactive avenues, desktop advertising isn't exactly new. In the dot-com days, desktop applications like PointCast promised to bring brand messages directly to consumers through so-called push technology. But PointCast flamed out, and desktop advertising has mostly been relegated to media placements on adware applications and instant-messaging clients.
Now, as the broadcast push system gives way to consumer-initiated engagements, advertisers are looking anew at desktop real estate, seeing it as a place to be invited to provide branded entertainment to a passionate audience that may pass it along to others.
FilmLoop, which advertisers can use to stream images to consumers opting to receive them, has a goal of 20 million users in a year's time—thanks to the explosive use of digital photography and a partnership with popular site PhotoBucket, Katz said. Between personal and stock photos, FilmLoop will run ads. Advertisers can also create their own photo streams that consumers can volunteer to receive—just like photos from a friend.
Purina is offering a loop of images from its "Incredible Dog Challenge" show, in the expectation that its customers will form a passionate online community of dog owners. "We're increasingly trying to create visual presentations of some of our content," said Michael Moore, Purina North America's director of interactive. In future FilmLoop campaigns, Moore said Purina hopes to allow dog and cat owners to upload their own pictures to share in a Purina-sponsored photo stream.
Another launch advertiser, TBS, is using the FilmLoop service to promote Sex and the City and other programming. Richard Turner, senior director of interactive marketing at TBS, said the Time Warner network would promote the service through its site, e-mails and possibly via banner ads across the Web. The loop will include scenes from shows as well as reminders to fans of upcoming episodes. "Every marketer is looking for a natural opportunity to be top of mind," Turner said. "To be on a desktop is a natural way to be top of mind."
For other advertisers, the route to the desktop is more direct, with some creating their own applications. Best Buy is trying to tap into the casual gaming phenomenon to gain a coveted spot on its customers' desktops. The Minneapolis-based retailer has worked with Fuel Industries, an Ottawa interactive gaming shop, to create desktop video games for key market segments. To target executives, a Best Buy campaign beginning in September drove users through print and Web ads to a "Chief Out of Officer" Web site that offers a downloadable application that changes the user's desktop wallpaper into a golfing game, which is designed to give execs a chance to virtually drive golf balls during office downtime.
"The whole computer screen is just like a TV," said Sean MacPhedran, creative marketing strategist at Fuel Industries. "Why is nobody exploiting it?"
Fuel and other shops are also building desktop toys for clients, such as a virtual remote-control helicopter and interactive brand characters. In a push for Discovery Channel's Dragons show, Omnicom Group Web shop Agency.com built a virtual dragon that hatches from an egg and then lives on the desktop to interact with users, who can share the character with dragon-minded friends. In the first week of the push through Web ads this summer, the desktop fire-breather was downloaded 50,000 times. "If there's a like-minded passion between the brand and the consumer, there's an opportunity to stretch the bounds of interactive marketing," said Tom Ajello, creative director at Agency.com.
Other marketers are looking to benefit from broadband's high penetration rate to create their own branded desktop entertainment channels. Maven Networks, a Cambridge, Mass.-based broadband video company, has worked with advertisers like General Motors and Pepsi to build DVD-quality online video channels that users download to their desktop.
Pepsi has created a Mountain Dew channel targeted to teens with scenes from its upcoming snowboarding movie, First Decent, footage of Mountain Dew's Nascar team, other sports video, games and screensavers. Visitors to MountainDew.com can download the channel, and Pepsi's agency, Tribal DDB, promoted it through e-mail and ads on Yahoo! and youth entertainment site UGO. Pepsi has updated the channel with new clips every week, and 11,000 consumers have downloaded it since June, with an average session of 10 minutes.
"If you're going to get a consumer to commit to putting your brand on their desktop, you owe it to them to give them a consistent and valuable experience," said Christian Dietrich, group account director at the Omnicom shop.
However, some warn that advertisers should be careful not to overestimate their relationship to consumers. Ian Schafer, CEO of Deep Focus, a New York interactive agency, cautioned, "When you look at the reach, you're limited to the number of people who have this on their desktops." Gary Stein, a JupiterResearch analyst, echoed this sentiment: "It's a big commitment for consumers."
Dietrich added that the biggest challenge to establishing a foothold on desktops is keeping up with user expectations for fresh content. "At the end of the day, we're trying to sell more Mountain Dew," he said. "We're not trying to become a production studio."