fThe value of interactive multimedia

Ater a couple of false starts in the early 1980s, marketers are finally realizing the value of using interactive multimedia technology to sell their products and services.Interactive multimedia is a combination of video, high resolution graphics, voice narration, music, animation and...

Ater a couple of false starts in the early 1980s, marketers are finally realizing the value of using interactive multimedia technology to sell their products and services.

Interactive multimedia is a combination of video, high resolution graphics, voice narration, music, animation and text presented on a computer screen which is activated and directed by the user.

Information on products and services takes the form of ‘talking brochures’ and ‘video flyers.’

Kiosks

Marketers can provide this information by way of customer-activated terminals, popularly known as kiosks. Either a keyboard or touchscreen is set up to move users through the various applications.

The systems generally offer touchscreens, which are much faster, only requiring the user to place a finger on the screen to activate a selection.

The most user-friendly systems offer high amounts of visual information (graphics) rather than words (text). Users branch off into different segments according to their interest. They move at their own pace and can repeat sections or jump ahead freely.

Interactive multimedia technology is starting to appear in the most common of places. Even gas stations.

Travellers eastbound along Highway 401, the main route through southern Ontario to Quebec, at Mississauga, Ont., are now visiting the Shell Info Centre, an ultra-modern facility which offers services beyond the usual fuel and fast food.

Fast communication

The emphasis is on fast, accurate communication of travel information.

A large video wall displaying tourist attraction sites is flanked by seven kiosk/telephone stations.

The touchscreen computer terminals at each kiosk provide visitors with listings of hotels, events, restaurants and sights both in Toronto and throughout Ontario.

When users select a particular entry, the computer asks whether they want to call that site for further information, free of charge, using the phone provided.

There are also listings for 1-800 services including Child Find, the Canadian Automobile Association and Northwest Territories Tourism.

As well, if the user selects the printout button, a colored, glossy information sheet or direction slip will be ready for them at the main information desk.

Advertising platform

Graham Makey, manager of Toronto-based Magnus Multimedia, which created the interactive computer software for Shell, says the system was designed both as a traveller information centre and an advertising platform.

Makey says consumers want convenience and value when using interactive software.

‘It has to be used to assist the end-user,’ he says. ‘There has to be a payback.’

It is the value of coupons that has consumers lining up to use Kmart’s interactive kiosks, now available in 122 of the retailer’s outlets from coast to coast.

The kiosks, named Kmart Saving Centres, provide shoppers with information on a group of products being featured with coupon offers.

The touchscreen shows a visual of the product with a description, price (with and without coupon) and a store directory that indicates where the product can be found.

Shelf-level signage directs shoppers to the kiosks.

Kmart is getting requests in excess of 100,000 for coupons in a four-week period. Customer inquiries number 300,000 over the same time-frame.

Redemption rates are as high as 40%-50%, with an average rate of 15%-20%.

Advertisers pay $1,250 a week for a four-week cycle, giving them an estimated audience of six million shoppers in 122 stores.

Product and price changes are downloaded from a central control point to all stores through telephone lines.

The kiosks are self-monitoring and send signals when they are low on the paper used for coupon printouts.

Although interactive technology has been available for many years, it has been slow to catch on.

‘There’s been false starts, which tainted some people’s impression of interactive technology,’ says Michael Quinn, vice-president and general manager of the RNP Group (Retail Network Programming), who designed Kmart’s interactive kiosks.

Most of the problems have been with prototypes designed by technologists rather than marketers.

Setting up the system, then waiting for customer feedback is the wrong way to go about it in Quinn’s view. Extensive testing on customers before hitting the marketplace is a crucial part of the planning.

‘I’ve always believed that anything you develop you should take first to the consumer,’ Quinn says. ‘They make or break your program.’

Quinn says retailers must decide what they want to achieve with interactive systems.

Kmart management hopes the kiosks will update their store image as part of Kmart’s renewal process.

‘We are the only Canadian retailer with interactive storefront kiosks,’ says Mark Carriere, Kmart’s director of sales and promotion.

The attitude of clients plays a big part in the evolution of interactive marketing.

Peter Richardson, president of Toronto-based Tayson Information, a developer of interactive public access systems, has found the overly cautious mentality of Canadian businesspeople to be an on-going obstacle.

His company began in Calgary in 1981, fully expecting to cater to Canadian clients.

However, today Tayson does 80% of its business in the u.s. Its latest project is the development of 120 kiosks for tourists across three states.

Its one Canadian project is for Sobey’s grocery stores based in Halifax, which features in-store kiosks providing product listings, recipes and coupons.

‘The American market always takes chances and stays abreast of technological innovations,’ says Richardson.

He says Canadians are ‘afraid of it, they don’t understand it,’ but adds they will buy in because they know it will affect their business in some way.

‘The insanity of it all is, typically, the technology comes from Canada,’ says Richardson, who, as president of the Toronto chapter of the International Interactive Communications Society, has an overview of the industry.

Since 1983, he has seen many systems come and go and ‘most of them are gone.’

‘Originally, there was lots of snake oil in the industry,’ agrees Michael Voss, president of Vostech Systems, an interactive software producer.

Although there still are no regulations or standards applied to the multimedia industry, the quality of the products is improving.

Nowadays both the software and hardware work faster, are highly flexible and a lot less expensive.

Among other projects, Voss has designed interactive information kiosks for various hospitals throughout Ontario.

The customer-activated terminals display menus detailing hospital layout and history, donor listings and local attractions.

Customers can use their credit cards to buy items listed in the computer directory, such as flowers and pharmacy goods.

Depending on the project, Voss charges about $2,000 to $3,000 for the original interactive disk with an added cost of one or two dollars per disk copied.

More sophisticated presentations may incorporate video segments. Video producers generally charge $4,000 per minute of video. Changes to text and graphics can be done quickly and cheaply.

Some of the most sophisticated applications available are kiosks designed by Frank O’Hara Systems.

The Toronto-based interactive software company has created touchscreen, point-of-sale systems for Allstate Insurance and the TD Bank which provide insurance quotes to the cent and allow customers to pay by cheque or charge card.

‘An A-type personality can get through it in two minutes,’ says President Frank O’Hara.

Allstate has 13 kiosks in the field, with seven more on the way. Six TD GreenPlanner kiosks are in operation for a six-month trial run.

The kiosks feature multilingual narrators, extensive video clips, graphics, touchscreen, laser disk printouts and magnetic card readers.

Surveys completed by users at the end of transactions help the companies capture demographic data to better target their buyers.

A series of questions determines the user’s attitude towards interactive methods of buying insurance. Designers hope users find it fun, almost like playing a video game.

Which begs the question: Is interactive technology destined to be embraced by the younger generation and shunned by others?

A quick look through the visitors’ logbook at the Shell Info Centre reveals positive feedback on the interactive kiosks were mainly entered by children and youths.

‘Cool computers,’ ‘Awesome!’ and ‘The kids loved the computers’ were common messages.

As for Kmart’s kiosks, store clerks notice children and teenagers are frequent users of the coupons for pop and snack food.

In time, parents of these computer-happy youths may be persuaded to approach the kiosks with less wariness, but interactive multimedia experts do not expect a rush of seniors to the screens.

Quinn recognizes the generation gap and believes seniors will have to be reached another way unless technology is designed to be less intimidating.

Voss sees the same generational divisions. ‘My son knows more about computers than me, but grandpa is scared rigid.’

While interactive kiosks may be intimidating to the older generation, consumers of all ages are comfortable using remote control converters to change channels on their tv sets, and that is about all it takes to participate in interactive television.

Frontrunner

Videoway Communications in Montreal is a frontrunner in interactive television.

Subscribers to the service, which links a Videoway terminal to the television converter, can choose which commercials they want to watch.

For example, during certain sporting events and concerts, Videoway has allowed viewers to select commercials by pressing certain keys on their converters.

For example, Coca-Cola was the main sponsor of a recent Celine Dion concert. Before each commercial block, viewers were asked a question about the upcoming commercial such as ‘In what language would you like to see an ad for Coca-Cola?’

Four languages listed with corresponding converter keys appeared on the tv screen. The viewer chose a key, then saw a Coke commercial in the language of preference.

Judith Bergeron, program manager of Videoway’s tvi (TV Interactively) says Coca-Cola was able to gauge viewer response through an interactive telephone survey after the concert.

Results showed that the use of interactive tv contributed to Coke’s image as a young, high-tech, soft drink company.

As well, Bergeron says there is a high level of product recall when viewers personally choose the commercials.

‘It has to do with the potential of choice and participation,’ she says.

Currently, Videoway relies on telephone lines for its connection to viewers. By 1994, a two-way mode will directly link the viewer to the cable operator, changing tv forever.

When tv becomes fully bidirectional, viewers will be able to do their banking and shop directly from the screen. They will pay for items using a credit card number that they will key into their converters.

Coupons for merchandise will be printed out from the Videoway terminal sitting next to their tvs. One advertiser will be able to program four different commercials aimed at four different target groups.

‘It’s a call to action for advertisers,’ says Jean-Paul Galarneau, director of communications at Videoway. ‘This is the way to go.’

By combining commercial segments with videotext, consumers will have more information on products.

The growing desire for information is one reason why RNP Group is launching csn (Consumer Savings Network), a new tv service, in September.

In 18 to 24 months, csn will become interactive, offering a home shopping service.

It will debut earlier, if the development of a two-way mode is accelerated.

Another company eagerly waiting for this advanced technology is Rogers Cablesystems of Toronto.

Digital video compression will soon increase Rogers channel offerings from 60 to 200. Rogers plans to bring viewers interactive home shopping once an ‘upstream path’ is created, linking viewers, advertisers and the cable operator more effectively.

‘Advertisers can target their message and people will get the message they want, not just what’s put in front of them,’ says Colin Watson, president of Rogers Cablesystems.

‘It will become a marketing utopia, where the hungry buyer and the voracious seller meet on the screen,’ Watson says.