High tech on the online advertising horizon

Simon was the answer. Back in April, Bell Canada was searching for a way to remind students to disconnect their phones when the school year ended. So Bell Canada's e-channel division tried its hand, for the first time, at solely online advertising. But rather than use the oft-maligned banner ads, its agency Vancouver-based Blast Radius, incorporated a new technology in online advertising, flash media.

Simon was the answer. Back in April, Bell Canada was searching for a way to remind students to disconnect their phones when the school year ended. So Bell Canada’s e-channel division tried its hand, for the first time, at solely online advertising. But rather than use the oft-maligned banner ads, its agency Vancouver-based Blast Radius, incorporated a new technology in online advertising, flash media.

The ads featured ‘Simon,’ a Prozzak-like student character who was tying up loose ends (including disconnecting his phone) before he moved out. No audio was used, but students could read his dialogue through speech bubbles, and see the prominent-placed phone ringing throughout the ad. And in the end, Simon pulled through: the campaign captured a 5.41% click-through rate (compared to the industry average of 0.25%, according to Bell Canada) and plans to run it again.

‘We wanted something to capture the attention of students, considering the fact they spend so much time online,’ says Angelique Tsevas, marketing communications manager for Bell Canada’s e-channel division. ‘Since they witness so many banners and online advertising, we really needed something to capture their attention.’

Bell Canada is one of many Canadian companies that have begun to experiment with, and often adopt, new technologies and techniques for online advertising. But with new media starting to experience old media issues such as clutter, will these showy new technologies help breakthrough to consumers? Well, yes and no.

While creatively they offer more eyeball-grabbing options, marketers and agencies alike stress that it still comes down to using good creative. After all, new technology can’t dominate the creative idea, let alone make up for a shoddy one.

In reaching consumers, today’s online marketers are dealing with major obstructions, such as poor targeting and extremely low click-through rates.

‘At the start [of the medium], it was fantastic. People put ads up and the click-through rate was very high,’ says Lee Feldman, chief creative officer of Blast Radius. ‘Over time, effectiveness started dropping. The ubiquitousness of the Web and the ads on the page started creating clutter.’

And thanks to deals like ‘network buys’ in which clients buy a number of impressions on a variety of sites, poor targeting means every day consumers are exposed to meaningless banner ads.

Other barriers also plague the industry in executing effective online advertising, such as inconsistent measurement techniques, and fighting the banner ad’s bad reputation (the source of which has sometimes been bad creative execution).

‘To ourselves as marketers, it’s about creativity,’ says Kevin Bird, a partner with Toronto-based JAM Designs. ‘The people creating the ads for online have, until this point, been restricted by the technology. Now, we’ve got this new technology, and one challenge will be to think outside the screen and get more quality ideas on the table.’

Not surprisingly, new technologies have been scooped up in markets such as the U.S. and the U.K. Coca-Cola has used pop-ups for its Dasani brand, MSN is working with expandable banners and both BMW and Unilever have used mini-movies. Along with being attention-getting, they make the most of the Internet’s strength – interactivity.

‘They’re more engaging in that they give consumers a task, involving them in the advertising,’ says Carolyn Convey, media director at Toronto-based Nine Dots, an interactive marketing firm.

Here in Canada, the use of new technologies is more conservative – for now. While some use of direct hyper text mark-up language (DHTML, sometimes known under its trademark name, vokens) and pop-ups is going on, most pundits say the market is waiting to see what technologies will shake out of the medium thanks to meager results.

That said, some interesting work is being done. As part of its mandate to be a technological leader and with its own ad properties such as Sympatico and www. globeandmail.com at its disposable for experimentation, Bell and Cossette Interactive in Toronto have used new technologies to advertise its multiple business units. One DHTML/banner ad combo for Bell Mobility showed a banner featuring a band with a lead singer. Suddenly, the singer walks out of the banner and around the page. Other ads have included pop-under ads (a boxed ad which sits on the screen once a surfer has closed his or her browser), and ‘skyscraper’ vertical ads (which run on one side of the page above and below the ‘fold’), and big box ads a.k.a. ‘Big Bertha’s.’

E-Post, Canada Post’s electronic mail service, has also worked with big box ads and ‘intrusive units,’ a name dubbed by Nine Dots, which did the E-Post work. The ‘intrusive’ clickable ad was a hand that popped out randomly promoting E-Post’s service, and then retreated. The big box ad had editorial text wrapped around it, and featured call to action tabs. Both formats were used in addition to banners. The campaign ran during the last two weeks of May, and is resuming mid-July, this time using only the big box format (intrusive units weren’t as readily accepted by consumers). E-Post will also try its hand at DHTML ads.

And the list of new technologies doesn’t stop there. Canadian Business magazine just launched an Interactive Branding Ad (IBA), in which consumers can click on a tab on the magazine’s site. Up pops screens of information, yet the consumer doesn’t leave the host site. Eventually, Canadian Business hopes to add additional technology to the IBA, such as 3D modeling.

And not surprisingly, youth-oriented sites are also using these formats. This past spring, Cossette ran a DHTML ad for Nike that featured a basketball bouncing across www.muchmusic.com. Once the user’s mouse grazed the ad, up popped a link for a contest to win NBA playoff tickets. Nintendo of America, through Blast Radius, recently used pop-ups and pop-unders to direct traffic to its Game Boy Advance Web site,www.gameboy.com.

Marketers and agencies alike say they’re conscious of the new technology and the limits consumers have in welcoming them on their computers. Some companies prefer to reserve things like flash media for youth-oriented sites. But Shari Walczak, VP and GM of Cossette Interactive, estimates that 80% to 90% of Web users can receive Flash technology now, especially since it’s built into versions of Netscape 4.0 and higher.

But all these new gizmos may be leaving marketers a bit numb. With the advent of advertising on cell phones, flash technology and DHTML, what’s a marketer to choose? It’s a wait-and-see-what-works attitude, says Simon Jennings, sales director for Toronto-based online agency DoubleClick. ‘We’re tossing mini-movies, pop-ups against a wall to see what sticks,’ he says.

‘On some levels, the medium will get more interesting as [more] broadband becomes more common. And you can see it now, streaming ads are more interactive,’ says Jay Aber, president of Toronto-based 24/7 Media Canada. ‘There are tons of untapped opportunities.’

And those opportunities may include improvements in banner ads. Aber likens banner ads to direct mail, a so-called dead medium 15 years ago. ‘Everyone said no one’s going to use direct mail because no one likes junk mail. Well, messages got more finely crafted, better targeted and more appealing,’ he says.

And part of fashioning better creative messages could mean incorporating the new technology into the old, as Bell did with its lead singer DHTML ad. For now, it seems that marketers and agencies are preferring a combination of new and old: banners using a more developed message with a call to action, and reserving DHTML ads for teaser messages.

But new or old, the creative message still needs to be strong. ‘No matter how cool or funky or sexy your ad is, if it doesn’t deliver on a stated objective, it doesn’t matter,’ says Louise Clements, VP of sales and e-commerce for Web portal Sympatico-Lycos.

Convey agrees. ‘Creatively, technology really changes things,’ she says. ‘But whether you’re using new technologies or not, it should be an integrated campaign. You really should have one coherent message, and that’s an important part of the game.