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The Evolution of Rich Media

Russell Shaw
The Evolution of Rich Media Russell Shaw

Flash traces its beginnings to an animation tool called FutureSplash, debuted by FutureWave Software in 1992. By 1996, Disney Online was using FutureSplash for animated content on its subscription based online service Disney Daily Blast. In December of 1996, Macromedia bought FutureWave Software and FutureSplash Animator, the design tool at the heart of the technology, became Macromedia Flash 1.0.

Over the next several years, Macromedia issued several updates to Flash. Most of these were improvements that have changed the nature of Flash from a simple Web drawing and animation package to a full multimedia development environment. The biggest leap forward took place in March 2002 when Macromedia released the Flash MX developer tool in tandem with Flash Player 6. The application and associated software made a whole host of new rich media applications available—including Web-based e-commerce forms and compatibility with mobile devices.

The latest Flash upgrade hit the market in summer 2003. Plug-ins to Flash Player 6 and the new Flash Player 7 made other new applications possible, such as a module where online shoppers could save information seen in a rich media animation to their hard drives for subsequent view. These enhancements took place in the new Flash MX 2004 developer environment, released at the same time. PriceGrabber.com was an early adopter.

The Way It Streams From Here

The earliest days of the Web were characterized by what is commonly described as “static” media—text and still photos, little more than “brochureware” on a computer screen.

In the mid-1990s, the Internet exploded from a text-based system to one that contained pictures, even sounds, videos and animations

When a company then known as Progressive Networks first released RealAudio 1.0 in 1995, at the National Association of Broadcasters annual convention, everything changed. Although early versions were far less advanced than today’s state-of-the-art RealOne, people could first hear sounds, and later see images over the Internet—not via download but at the time the actual event occurred or the content was delivered. This so-called streaming media technology not only enabled real-time witnessing of audio and video images on the Web, but also listening and viewing on demand without having to wait for lengthy download times of the earlier audio and video delivery. With this streaming technology, the Web user could enjoy the content immediately, as it was being “streamed. Almost immediately after it was released, RealAudio became the Web’s most popular standard for audio broadcasting.

In April 1997, Progressive Networks took another transcending step, launching RealVideo. Immediately, it changed the way videos are transmitted over the Internet, from time-consuming downloads to real-time viewing. The product was bundled with RealAudio in RealPlayer 4.0. For the product’s debut, three short films featuring acclaimed director Spike Lee were offered on the site of what was then Progressive Networks. Within 24 hours, viewers downloaded more than 100,000 copies of RealPlayer 4.0.

Progressive Networks changed its name to RealNetworks in September 1997. The fact that RealAudio and RealVideo both made it possible to see and hear content over the Web in “real” time was a major impetus for this new identity.

RealNetworks released RealPlayer 5.0 in October 1997. RealPlayer G2, a quantum leap in streaming media technology, made its entry in October 1998. Subsequent versions have been released about every 18 months since then. RealOne, the latest version of RealPlayer, made its debut in 2001.

Microsoft was soon on Progressive Networks' heels. NetShow made its debut in September 1996 as a streaming media-playing companion to primitive, built-in Media Player technology included since the earliest versions of Windows. The division of labor was thus: NetShow played the streams, and Media Player was used to play audio content, such as tracks on a music CD that a user placed in his or her PC's CD drive.

NetShow's first edition, known as NetShow 1.0, had basic streaming media audio technology, including access to a few of the streaming radio stations who were offering their programming over the Internet. The release was widely seen as a competitive reaction against RealPlayer, the leading streaming media software at the time. RealPlayer, from RealNetworks (then known as Progressive Networks), first appeared in 1995.

At that time, Microsoft promoted NetShow more as a platform for developers to design streaming media content than for consumers to listen and watch such content. The company replicated the strategy in NetShow 2.0, which came out in 1997. Some 11 million people downloaded NetShow that year, and were able to take advantage of the updated version’s better use of bandwidth.

Bandwidth improvement took a leap forward with the release of NetShow 3.0 in mid-1998. The company had bought a streaming media player company called Vextreme in late 1997, an acquisition that gave it new tools for managing bandwidth-intensive streaming video content. Providers such as CNN, Fox News and MSNBC signed aboard to deliver video to site visitors with NetShow 3.0 on their desktops.

NetShow kept working on gradual improvements. In October 1999, Microsoft re-branded NetShow into a full streaming media product known as Windows Media Player 6. Unlike NetShow, the new WMP ran on Microsoft's proprietary streaming audio and video formats, and brought the former functions of Media Player in to form an all-in-one media player solution.

Windows Media Player 7 came to the market in the summer of 2000, offering enhanced streaming audio and video playback, compatibility with MP3 files, and, befitting Napster's huge popularity at that time, a built-in CD burner. Media guides where users could search for streaming audio and video content on the Web were embedded into WMP 7. For the first time, users could also customize their copy of WMP by choosing from a library of more than 20 skins.

Microsoft never released a "Windows Media Player 8" as such, instead branding "8" as a developer tool for improved audio and video encoding. Although it was still called Windows Media Player 7, a de facto "8" version was bundled into the then-new Windows XP operating system in October 2001. This edition was compatible with the enhanced audio and video codecs built into Windows Media Audio and Video 8.

Everything changed in January 2003 with the official release of Windows Media Player 9. The main improvements were for the ability of the user to customize his or her experiences. Here was streaming media software with mini-player mode, queue-it-up, cross-fading, auto-volume leveling, variable speed playback, auto playlists and ratings. It also added support for new Windows Media Audio 9 lossless, variable bit-rate (VBR) encoding, sound distortion reduction HDCD (High Definition Compatible Digital) playback technology and "video smoothing" technology for content encoded at comparatively low bit rates. A big help for consumers with comparatively slow, dial-up connections, the video smoothing technology built into Windows Media Player 9 smoothes out streams by inserting interpolated (estimated range of display characteristics) frames into content.

Apple Computer followed a somewhat different path to the streaming media competitive marketplace. The company first rolled out QuickTime in 1992 as software that would primarily play rich media files the user had already downloaded to their computer. Apple maintained that the main advantage of this method over streaming was that since the file being played was being generated from the user's computers, playback was not compromised by the vagaries of inconsistent Internet connections at low speeds.

As more customers obtained fast broadband connections, and as streaming media software showed it was here to stay, Apple upgraded QuickTime with streaming media playback capability. The first version of QuickTime with the capacity to play streaming files directly from the Internet was QuickTime 4.0, released in September 1999.

Apple has issued two substantial upgrades since then. The latest version, QuickTime 6.4, was released in September, 2003. It includes support for mobile rich media content as well as MPEG-4 technology, an enhanced digital compression technique for encoding rich multimedia content. 

Brand: BigFix

Agency: Rassak Experience

Sample coverage: The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Scobleizer

Campaign: Exploiting America's obsession with last year's presidential race -- and perhaps offering a humorous tonic for those bored with the election -- BigFix offered up Ray Hopewood, a fictional candidate who mocked the absurdity of non-stop political ads while subtly touting the virtues of the company's enterprise software offerings. Hopewood had his own Facebook page, videos, and merchandise. And as the real presidential race heated up, BigFix kept pace with new "developments" from its candidate.

What set it apart: During last year's election season, there was no shortage of campaigns that sought to use the political event to their own advantage. But what made the difference for BigFix was the genuine nature of the campaign, says Barak Kassar, president of Rassak Experience.

"A key mistake is to lose sight of the actual digital human experience you are creating for people," Kassar says. "We climbed into the skin of our viewer, and we sweated every detail of how this campaign would first appear to a person, and how it would unfold. Was the first eighth of an eighth of a second going to feel just right? And would it get better and better along the way?"

That strategy paid off, according to Kassar, who says some European users who weren't closely following the American election actually believed Hopewood to be the genuine article after seeing some banner ads. But more than that, Kassar insists that the key was that the campaign offered real touchpoints (including a Facebook page, Flickr photos, and a blog) that enabled people and reporters to engage on their own terms.

Advice: "Never bank on media coverage and never, ever bank on viral," Kassar says. "Both are gifts, and if you believe you deserve them, you will get hurt. All you can do is make something as good and human as you can. Treat the audience as human beings and treat reporters as human beings."

Brand: BBQ Addicts

Agency: None

Sample coverage: The New York Times, Akron Beacon Journal, Toronto Star

Campaign: After receiving a Twitter challenge to do something with bacon, BBQ fanatics Jason Day and Aaron Chronister set about creating the now infamous Bacon Explosion. But what began as a recipe disseminated through their website, BBQAddicts.com, and a few tweets, grew into a full-blown media frenzy, aided in part by America's obsession with outrageous Super Bowl snacks. The campaign helped drive traffic to the duo's blog, which has helped Chronister and Day turn their passion for BBQ into a full-time job.

What set it apart: There are a lot of crazy, pork-filled recipes floating around the internet, but according to Chronister, the Bacon Explosion took off because of three critical factors.

The first factor, Chronister says, was timing. With a launch date so close to the Super Bowl, BBQ Addicts gave legions of foodie football fans an exciting new dish to bring to their halftime party.

The second factor, according to Chronister, was the name, which even he admits is a little over the top. But, he says, one can't deny the power of an over-the-top name when it comes to grabbing the attention of an internet audience.

But the third factor -- which one could easily define as guilty-pleasure syndrome -- is what made Bacon Explosion, well, explode. "In reality, the recipe is very good (in moderation, of course)," Chronister says. "People were thinking, 'Who on Earth would eat that?' But in reality, they actually wanted one."

In other words, Bacon Explosion offered the shock value of something absurd, but behind the unusual recipe was a dish many people secretly wanted to try. That combination offered a kind of one-two punch, enabling BBQ Addicts to lead with a zany concept while delivering something of substance.

Advice: To push the campaign, BBQ Addicts relied heavily on social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook. But, according to Chronister, many brands often misuse those platforms.

"Many companies haven't embraced the real nature of social networking and are hesitant due to fear of backlash," Chronister explains. "What they need to understand is any feedback at all is good, even negative responses. It's an instant survey and one of the fastest ways to improve whatever it is they're offering. All markets consist of human beings who like to be involved, and many times companies are pushing too much of a corporate message instead of a human message. They need to stop being afraid of their customers and start building relationships."

In BBQ Addicts' case, that relationship led to a conversation, which turned into a challenge, which in turn became a recipe that put the blog on the map.

Agency: None

Sample coverage: Fort Worth Business Press, Star-Telegram, ABA Journal (print)

Campaign: Hollywood it's not. But North Texas is home to one of the more unusual and risky bank campaigns anyone has ever seen. Rather than spending money on a traditional print and radio buy to advertise the bank's latest programs, Worthington (a regional bank) made four short films for YouTube, including a finale that mimicked a Western-style bank robbery. The mock robbery -- something most banks would shy away from -- was foiled by the bank's employees, who used their customer service skills to charm the thieves into submission.

The campaign relied almost entirely on local press coverage to drive customers to the bank's website and YouTube page.

What set it apart: While the numbers on the campaign were small (North Texas isn't the same as going national), Worthington Bank CEO Greg Morse says the YouTube videos were a success because they took risks few brands in the space ever dream of taking.

"We were at a bank conference two years ago and noticed that the advertising for smaller banks was pretty lame," Morse says. "The videos were made purposely to incorporate situations one wouldn't necessarily associate with a bank, like a day at the beach. They were made to showcase as much personality as possible (again, something not generally associated with banks). We aimed to make the campaign as unexpected as possible because people always talk about the things that surprise them."

That tactic worked, and many local reporters took note of a bank talking -- albeit in jest -- about bank robberies. According to Morse, that buzz helped energize existing customers and bring in new clients who were looking for a more personal relationship with their local bank.

Advice: While Morse attributes much of the campaign's success to the surprise factor, he also believes that using employees as actors in the ads made a big difference. "Using real-life employees added a bit of human interest and upped the news value of the story," Morse explains.

The use of employees also helped sell the bank's message of personable customer service, something Morse believes is best kept out of the hands of paid actors who are less likely to appear genuine.

Brand: Honda

Agency: RPA

Sample coverage: Salon, The New York Times, Advertising Age (subscription required)

Campaign: If an award-winning director made three short films that just happened to include passing reference to Honda, the result would likely be the "Dream the Impossible" campaign, which asked consumers to join the automaker in an exploration of themes that reflect the brand's core values. One video, which touched upon the company's mission of transportation, speculated on what a car brand might mean in the year 2088. Another video, which highlighted Honda's passion for innovation, took the unusual tact of probing the role of failure in achieving technological breakthroughs.

What set it apart: While a number of car brands have dabbled in short films (most notably BMW), few have taken the bold step of making an earnest documentary that barely features the brand name at all. But that's exactly what J Barbush, RPA's VP and associate creative director, wanted to achieve with "Dream the Impossible."

"We liked the feel of the documentary," Barbush says. "It allowed for a very soft message, which was important because we didn't want this campaign to be about Honda, we wanted it to be about the philosophy of Honda."

According to Barbush, the focus on Honda's philosophy -- and how it relates to stories of regular people -- helped get bloggers and reporters writing not just about Honda the company, but about Honda the brand and, more importantly, what it meant.

"It wasn't just about presenting feel-good stories," Barbush explains. "People responded the most to the film about failure, and that makes sense because that's part of reality."

Advice: While Honda's bold creative (notably its decision to confront failure) may not be palatable for every brand, Barbush does believe that one takeaway all marketers can use has to do with the vast size and scope of the web. According to Barbush, one of the keys to the campaign was that Honda didn't try to keep the conversation confined to its site.

"We used the full web; it's a big place," Barbush says. "For this campaign, we pushed comments to YouTube because they just didn't fit on our site. Marketers shouldn't be afraid to take people away from the destination. That may mean you're soft on metrics, but you need to look at the bigger picture to see where people are going and engage them there."

Brand: Colt 45

Agency: Cole & Weber United

Sample coverage: MSNBCLA Weekly, LiquorSnob.com

Campaign: Looking to focus on a young, hip demographic, Colt 45 (perhaps best known as Billy Dee Williams' preferred malt liquor) used a microsite http://www.workseverytime.com/home/default.aspx, an underground comic book aesthetic, a painfully honest tagline ("Works every time"), and a partnership with Vice Magazine to share stories that revolve around the beverage. 

What set it apart: "If you talk to people who drink Colt 45, one truth immediately comes to the surface -- they always have a story to tell," says Britt Peterson, partner at Cole & Weber United.

While those stories often involve a kind of drunken debauchery not commonly voiced in most alcoholic beverage ads, Peterson says the campaign worked because it didn't get in the way of how people actually use the product or try to force an artificial image. But the story-based approach also gave the campaign a life of its own because it asked people to share their experiences, which in turn prompted numerous reporters and bloggers to joke about their own memories of drinking Colt 45. While that may have made for some tongue-in-cheek coverage, it did garner press nonetheless, which helped make the brand relevant for a hipper demographic.

Advice: Stories aside, one critical factor for any campaign seeking to get press coverage is its ability to exploit something happening in social culture right now. "If you're tapping into something that's really happening, you have a good chance to get some media attention," Peterson says.

In Colt's case, the beverage resonated with budget-conscious hipsters because the low price was an implicit part of a highly stylized message, rather than overt offer of savings. The result was a message that was more of a genuine cultural contribution than an ad, at least as far as the target audience was concerned.

Michael Estrin is an editor at BitterLawyer.com.

Participatory culture
There is no question that the notion of "media as a social affair" has caused one of the most profound climate changes for marketers in the last 50 years. Despite social media's weighty impact, one could make the argument that it is part of a larger trend that has existed long before the coining of the term "social media" (or more specifically, its use in common parlance).

In 2006, Henry Jenkins co-authored a white paper entitled "Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century." Many marketers pay lip service to Jenkins' work, but when you see the initiatives that some deploy, it becomes obvious that many have not bothered to actually read it. Toward the beginning of the white paper, Jenkins gives a definition of participatory culture. It is defined as a culture:

  1. With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement

  2. With strong support for creating and sharing one's creations with others

  3. With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices

  4. Where members believe that their contributions matter

  5. Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least, they care what other people think about what they have created).

As marketers strive to reap the benefits of the viral nature of content that is produced within a participatory culture, they tend to forget many of the ideas laid out above. Marketers seem to continuously fall short on the following points:

  • Participatory culture is about social connections with people. The definition above says nothing about brands. I don't believe people can have a social connection with a brand; they can either have a more general connection with a brand or a social connection with someone working at the brand, but a brand is an abstract concept, one that is not capable of a social life. 

  • Prizes are not the only way to make people feel their contributions matter. Point four in the definition above talks about people's incentives for being active in a participatory culture. Many brand marketers feel that cash and prizes are the only reward for participation. Still, organic participatory culture is not driven by economic gain, per se.

  • Participation should be valuable for everyone. One of the beautiful things that happens in participatory culture is co-creation, or the bringing together of ideas between brand and consumer. When attempting to leverage participation for marketing, brands should look at co-creation as the key ingredient in activation

Platform thinking
There was a time, not too long ago, when the word fragmentation conjured up feelings of terror in seasoned marketers everywhere. For those marketers who continue to fight to maintain their old ways of doing things, may I present Bob Dylan:

Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.

-Bob Dylan, 1963

As a new generation of marketers takes the strategic reins, fragmentation is becoming less of a hot topic, but why? This new generation of marketers is used to living in a world where media is consumed in numerous ways, through numerous devices, whenever it is convenient. Although fragmented media consumption has become the rule, not the exception, many marketers still struggle with the ability to tell effective stories across platforms. Channel integration and transmedia storytelling are no longer just interesting concepts for marketers to consider. Distributed storytelling across various channels is absolutely essential in creating effective communications strategies in today's media landscape. The age of platform thinking is here. 

As defined in this forum, platform thinking refers to a non-linear but holistic approach to storytelling. This approach differs from integrated marketing in that, traditionally, integrated marketing refers to a holistic approach where consistency of message is of the utmost importance. The platform approach differs in that elements are delivered at different times and in different places, each in service of a larger story arc.

When assessing the importance of platform thinking, one must consider that the internet is now everywhere. The current media landscape is experiencing a rapid divergence in the types of devices we use, but the content spread across these devices is similar, yet packaged differently. The day will soon come when our devices will be smart enough to detect content and automatically fit it for the particular device it is being accessed from. But we are at a crossroads, a challenging time in which it is the marketer's job to ensure that all communications can be accessed everywhere, in a way that makes sense for the way in which it is being accessed, and increasingly, at the time and place it is accessed.
Branded utility
A concept near and dear to my heart, branded utility is, in my opinion, one of the most important aspects of advertising and marketing innovation. In a world of infinite alternatives, even quality can become a commodity. Brands that push out products of similar quality to their competition need to find new ways to differentiate. This fact challenges marketers to ask the question, "What more can I do to add value?"

Given the weight of this concept, it is not easy to achieve. It is also not possible to create branded utility all the time without becoming redundant. While all marketing initiatives cannot be branded utility (you actually see very few examples in the market that truly fit the definition), the idea behind this trend is incredibly powerful and possesses an unparalleled ability to create strong ties with consumers. The core tenets behind branded utility should be considered in every marketing effort. 

As a concept, branded utility is possibly the closest of the three trends discussed in this article to the idea of innovation because both branded utility and innovation require creativity and have the mandate of using this creativity to serve a purpose (other than simply being creative).


Who is joining me at ad:tech and what you will hear
One of the best parts of this ad:tech experience is meeting new, really smart people. While the details are subject to change, you can plan on hearing from the following industry rock stars, among others:

Obi Felten, head of consumer marketing, Google UK
Ben Malbon, executive director of innovation, BBH New York
Jerome Austria, interactive creative director, Wieden+Kennedy NYC
Jason Clement, director of digital strategy, Wieden+Kennedy NYC
Ivan Askwith, director of strategy, Big Spaceship

If that is not enough to whet your appetite, here are a few of the case studies you will hear about:

Watch video here.

I look forward to seeing you at this groundbreaking event. Keep in mind, this track is not just about people speaking at you. There will be a conversational portion. Furthermore, I will be sure to set up necessary back channels to start the dialog before the event, and continue it afterwards.

Adam Broitman is partner and ringleader at Circ.us.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.


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