When the very earliest advertising appeared online back in 1993 on proprietary services like Prodigy and CompuServe, no one took much notice at all. Most of the advertising world didn't know what "online" even meant.
Standardized banners and impressions as the 'atom' of the online ad universe were still on the horizon. At this time there weren't very many people online. And if you were online, it was undoubtedly via a dial-up connection. The only thing that dictated the speed of your access to the web was the kind of modem you were using-- 2400, 9600 or 14,000 baud rate.
The content to be found on the web continued to grow vast and wide. But the data transfer speeds that dial-up provided limited the formats that this content could be served in. The graphically rich environment that much of the web now has to offer could not be engaged regularly and perennially without a larger pipe through which this data was being transferred.
Broadband's adoption has irrevocably changed the online landscape from one of static or slow moving images to one of near-TV like engagement. Broadband has let people watch TV or listen to the radio and still look things up online at any time-- at a moment's notice, a friend can call (because the line isn't tied up on dial-up) and ask you to look something up online and you can do it, because your computer is always on and it is always connected to the internet.
And with applications like Skype, I can actually have a friend call me over the internet.
Why rich media is the only media
According to @plan, there are more than 105 million people ages 18-plus in the United States that access the web over a broadband connection. eMarketer estimates that by the end of 2008 there will be more than 157 million people in the United States accessing the web via broadband.
There are now enough people online, with the web coming to them with heavy loads of data, to enable meaningful experiences. Although there are certainly plenty of people out there with old computers and AOL dial-up, that audience is slowly dissolving. Planning media with that audience as your primary tenor and thrust is like designing long-distance transportation based on a rail system.
What this means for marketers
Individuals are seizing more and more control over their lives (to a certain degree, anyway) and in no way is that more apparent than in the way they use media.
The internet is not only becoming the hub around which all other media are connected to by the spokes of an individual's use; it is also becoming a primary means of access to high quality video content. AOL's In2TV, which has classic TV programming like "Welcome Back Kotter" and "Alice"; enabling users to watch TV online, and Heavy.com, which has original video content targeted to males 18 to 34, are signs that large audiences have arrived to the web, via broadband, for serious media engagement.
Broadband means that "engagement branding" advertising can be used to marketing's end. Broadband means that people can now be "always on," enabling marketers to double-up their media communications, running an ad in one medium that leads an individual into another medium, namely, the web.
But what this also means is that the creative advertisers run should be commensurate for the media being consumed. Flat GIFs or animated HTML is not that. Marketers should be putting their best creative foot forward, not as something unique, but as something that is de rigueur.
The premiums often associated with what is called rich media will have to eventually go away. The bandwidth argument no longer really holds. The real cost differential between rich media and other online ads is negligible as far as how much it really costs for sites to allow for it-- unless of course the site is paying one of the rich media platform ad serving providers, which is another issue. If you are providing a better experience for users, even if it is an advertising experience, users will have… a better experience! And this can only reflect positively on the site, as well as the advertiser.
It should be rather obvious, but when a client mentions one of your competitors you've got problems. And when they continually mention several of your competitors, it's a sure sign they're looking elsewhere -- or at least testing the waters.
While situations like that aren't pleasant, they aren't hopeless either, according to Kelly Cutler, CEO of Marcel Media.
"Speaking to clients on a regular basis is the best way to pick up on verbal signals, tonality, mention of competitors in casual conversation, and response time to communications sent their way," said Cutler.
But it's not just about talking and listening to clients. A good dialogue -- one that can help the agency turn a bad situation around -- is often about striking a fine balance between over-communicating and under-communicating. Each client is different, and so the parameters of each conversation must be different.
Coming to you with ideas
Sometimes clients have lots of ideas and are very hands on. Other times, clients may take a more hands-off approach. But when the client starts bringing the agency ideas out of the blue, it might be a sign that there's a problem with the relationship, according to Leisa Hall, an account director at Anvil Media.
"Depending on the client, this may just be the way a hands-on client would operate even if they are very happy," said Hall. "But for a client who is less hands on or savvy, they may bring you ideas if they feel you're not bringing it for them."
But regardless of the client's motives, the solution is the same.
"Put processes in place to continually give clients opportunities and information," Hall advises. "Clients will always appreciate updates on industry information, nuggets you find in the news about their competitors, or stories that are relevant to their industry or businesses. Have regular brainstorming meetings (internally and with the client directly), leverage experiences from other clients, and make recommendations based on similarities across accounts. One of the main advantages that an agency has over in-house is the knowledge that can be leveraged across accounts, so you don't want to manage each client in a vacuum."
While each agency has stressed the importance of communication for avoiding, spotting, or remedying client red flags, it's worth noting that how that dialogue plays out -- and how it connects the agency to the client -- often depends on how the agency approaches client contact in general.
While there's certainly no one right answer for how to manage the client relationship, a few ideas did keep coming up.
Each agency stressed the importance of regular contact, both because it helps them to better read the client and because it takes the pressure off of each call, allowing the client to open up and speak frankly. Regular contact also allows the agency to present ideas without fear that one misstep will sink the account.
One thing James Hering at Click Here stressed was the importance of social time with the client. Simply put, social interactions where business isn't discussed have a real business value because they build the relationship and accelerate the connection.
Alistair Cansdale, head of client services at I Spy, stressed the importance of client empathy. In a nutshell, it means breaking away from phone and email in order to actually call on clients so that the agency can see the problem through the brand's eyes. For some agencies, sending just one or two team members to a client's office is a luxury, but according to Cansdale, the more people the agency is able to send, the better, especially if the people all have a diverse skill set.
Finally, one point Tisha Freer at Evviva Brands stressed is that the job of managing the client is, in some ways, never-ending. In a perfect world, the client is personified by one or two people who hired the agency. Of course, it's seldom a perfect world. Sometimes a new face on the account can mean the client is busy; other times it can mean there's a serious problem in the making. But regardless of the reason why the client has assigned new people to work with the agency, it's on the agency to continually foster that relationship. Said Freer, "Client relationships are like any human relationship -- they need candor, commitment and accountability in order to thrive." So when an agency sees a new face on the team, it behooves them to start from scratch in order to get off on the right foot.
How you hone those communication and social skills are probably topics for another article. But in the meantime, feel free to share your experiences in the comments section.
Michael Estrin is freelance writer.
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Campaigns like those launched by Marriott demonstrate one of the major ways that companies are reaching users: through intimacy and interactivity. On Kik, The Washington Post engages consumers with games and polls, and offers content it hopes will appeal to Kik's 200 million users. "We're going on the great American road trip!" The Washington Post told its Kik followers. "Say the name of your state to get started." The user's response triggered an automated conversation that included images of different cities around the U.S.
Each conversation is an intimate, one-to-one exchange between consumer and brand. According to Kik, more than 10 million users have already opted into a brand conversation, and its users are voluntarily sending an average of 9.4 messages to brands.
Comedy Central uses Kik to promote its viral videos. In addition to driving traffic to its original series online, it shares links to online comedy sketches relating to timely events like the NBA Finals and Mother's Day. "Don't miss Comedy Central's salute to Memorial Day with a Drunk History marathon playing now," the brand said, including a direct link to the video.
With Kik, users "opt-in" to a brand conversation by typing a question or comment. That kind of hand-raising creates qualified leads. While most brands are currently using Kik for content marketing, its ad program continues to grow and now includes some 60 advertisers. In May, the company announced new capabilities that allow brands to target by gender, geography, and operating system (Apple or Android).
In March of this year, shoe brand Clarks chose WhatsApp as the platform on which to tell the edgy and innovative story of the role its Desert Boot design has played in three different cultural movements. The company created a character to represent each subculture and invited users to chat with them through the app.
"It's a well-liked brand, but it's a brand that has the opportunity to freshen itself up and present itself into the 21st century," the company said of Clarks and its "interactive documentary." In addition to "freshening up," the campaign allowed Clarks to showcase its rich heritage. "From Rats to Rudeboys" also included a Spotify playlist and social media promotion.
Because messaging apps present the opportunity for real-time marketing, they're also useful for introducing new products. When Taco Bell launched its Spicy Chicken Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Tacos last year, it created a six-minute Snapchat-based film. Using Snapchat Stories, the brand timed the event with the MTV Movie Awards and sent snaps throughout the day that, when combined, became a short movie. "That experience showed us that people enjoy Snaps when they are endemic to the platform and tell an authentic story," Taco Bell's digital marketing and social media lead said. "We really felt this was a way to take our storytelling to a new level on this platform."
With apps like Snapchat, Kik, and WhatsApp, brands can humanize themselves and demonstrate the authenticity of their messaging. Because the format is so intimate and conversations play out on mobile, it's crucial that brands come across as genuine. If they can successfully establish themselves as trustworthy, they stand to build ongoing loyalty with the notoriously fickle Millennial audience. All three of these messaging apps have proven that young consumers will willingly converse with brands if the content is interesting, current, innovative, and perhaps most importantly, rings true to the user.
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"Group of young friends" image via Shutterstock.