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4 companies that can help you drive real engagement

4 companies that can help you drive real engagement Jim Nichols

Gigabytes of speeches, articles, and blog posts have pointed to the need to drive deeper engagement with consumers. It's a topic that goes right to the heart of digital media's advantages -- two way communications and the opportunity to deliver bona fide experiences. But in all of this discussion, the definition of engagement quickly gets squishy.

  • Is a click engagement?

  • How about a "like"?

  • Is there a minimum time threshold required to qualify as an engagement?

  • Do we need engagement standards across the industry?

One thing that's apparent in this rush toward engagement -- there is no one way to drive it. Both new and established companies are taking different approaches to the goal. Today I want to discuss four companies with that are making distinctive in-roads toward helping marketers forge deeper connections with audiences. Each company's product is designed to create ongoing brand impact -- a rich real-world experience, or greater message recall, or delivery of deep and compelling information to drive brand choice.

Solve Media: Engagement inspired by your third grade teacher

What do you do if you want to make sure you don't forget something? Solve Media hopes we remember the advice of our third grade teachers (in my case Mrs. Briggs): You write it down, or type it into something. Solve Media (disclosure, a Catalyst S+F client) was founded to leverage that idea for marketers.

The core offering is the Type-In -- a unit that replaces the frustrating "captchas" that confront us when we want to register or gain access to content. Every day, almost 300 million of these exasperating captchas get filled out; many more than once because they can be so difficult to decipher. Enter Solve Media.

Here's a short vid that makes it all clear

See the ad, type in the message, and you're done.

"Type-Ins are dead simple," says Ari Jacoby, co-founder and CEO of Solve Media. "Lots of companies are focusing on layers of technology and data sets to coax higher response rates. All of that is important work. But we took a different road. Our platform offers a genuine and guaranteed value exchange, without new infrastructure or privacy issues for clients. The consumer gets what she wants, and the client and publisher get real value."

Does it work? Solve commissioned a third-party Wharton School of Business study that showed a 111 percent higher level of brand recall from Type-Ins versus banners, and 12 times the level of message recall. Further, it appears that people are at least as likely to complete a Type-In versus a captcha in order to get what they seek. Internal Solve Media data indicate that 40 percent of consumers who encounter a Type-In engage and type the information correctly.

Mrs. Briggs from third grade was right.

Type-ins are sold by pay-per-completed-type-in. You only pay for those instances when consumers type the message correctly. Many large publishers are implementing this new platform because it creates new inventory, reduces customer frustration, and gives advertisers impact. Some pubs are also exploring the platform as an alternative method of paying for content. For example, a major metro newspaper could deploy a Type-In instead of charging a monthly fee for content. Since so few consumers are willing to pay cash for content, this technology offers a way to get consumers to pay attention and for publishers to monetize their product.

Solve is newer than the other companies discussed in this piece, but they have already garnered an impressive client list, including Toyota, Microsoft, Expedia, Universal, and Dr. Pepper.

EXPO TV: Engagement through personal endorsement

We've all seen the data that consumers trust the recommendation of a regular person -- any regular person -- more than ads. More and more consumers are turning to the web to find consumer POVs before they buy. EXPO TV, a New York based start-up, is leveraging this consumer insight to create a video community that advice seekers and brands can join. In just a couple years, they've cultivated a remarkable client list.

Endorsements online aren't new. But EXPO TV has created a community of product fans and reviewers who volunteer to deliver their thoughts in stand-up-presenter videos. Consumers appear onscreen to discuss the merits (and issues) of products. Here's an example:

See all Hair Care reviews at Expotv

This video and several others were tested in a comScore study http://corp.expotv.com/comscore-ars-ugc-video-study measuring the effectiveness of consumer word of mouth videos versus commercials. The study found that these homemade creations, despite their decidedly unslick production values, have comparable persuasive power to professional ads.

It's easy to see why so many consumers find this sort of video compelling. So compelling, in fact, that some progressive brands, like Gain, have made these the centerpiece of their brand web presences.

Consumers can rate any product that they like, but brands can encourage consumers to rate their offerings in a variety of ways. You can sponsor a contest, use their Tryology program to send out samples in exchange for honest reviews, even build dedicated brand pages on the site. Additionally, EXPO can distribute videos directly to retailers, who use them as an aid to sale, as in this example from Amazon. By partnering with EXPO, you get rights to use consumer videos whenever and wherever.

All videos are transcribed and matched to products, right down to the SKU. One result is that when you look up consumer products in Search, EXPO videos are often among the top 10 results.

EXPOTV lets consumers speak freely. They ask consumers for honest opinions. Fans praise freely. And consumers that have questions or issues are welcome to respond and add videos to the EXPOTV site as well. But what's interesting is that the tenor of video is almost universally positive -- 85 percent.

EXPO TV has more than 75,000 regular video-making participants, and its vids have garnered more than 40 million views since the platform was launched.

AOL Project Devil

A major new engagement initiative from AOL, called Project Devil, has just been launched with a premier list of charter advertisers including General Mills, Unilever, Lexus, Sprint, and Procter & Gamble. This new creative execution enhances consumers' experiences as they interact with content, and drives significantly greater engagement. Devil does this by enabling the consumer to explore brand messages and information on their terms in a low-distraction environment.

Devil ads are larger units, 400x1200 compared to the standard 300x250 units. That gives brands a 100 percent voice on the page and offers a multitude of content in a single, unbroken space. The modular unit enables the brand to insert virtually any form of content into one of the template unit zones.

These zones can include video, interactivities, choosers, store finders, deep product information, and the like. In essence, they treat the product and the process of learning more about it as "news". Here's an explanatory video:

The Devil offering also makes significant changes to the overall page experience. Rather than competing for attention with a bunch of sponsored messages, Devil ads are the only paid marketing offered on those pages.

To really see the experience, you need to look at a Devil ad in the context of a web page on which it appears. This view gives you a sense of what they are going for -- genuine content integration rather than garish, blinky "click now" annoyances at the periphery of the screen.

According to AOL, Devil is a paradigm shift for digital advertising, where ads have historically been designed to distract users from the content they sought. Their website puts it this way:

Most online ads today are designed to distract the user. So as ads have proliferated, the user experience has suffered -- along with the user, of course. In many other media, ads are part of the experience. Far from detracting from the writing or programming, they contribute to it. Nowhere is this more possible than on the internet. Project Devil is our first step toward realizing this potential.

A nice vision and a cool unit.

Meebo: Connecting brands to my social graph

Given Meebo's heritage of making social sharing easier, it's only natural that their solutions for brands focus there as well. Last year the company launched the Meebo Bar. It gave publishers an easy way to make their content social and through that functionality drive incremental viral traffic.

Meebo users that arrive on the participating sites automatically see the toolbar at the bottom of their browser, in front of a small strip over the site content. As the user scrolls down, the bar is persistent, moving with the user's field of vision. It's polite yet intrusive -- let's call it "poltrusive."

The toolbar offers brands several ways to communicate with consumers, drive engagements, and spread messages virally. Here's a picture of the "unopened" toolbar, which features what they call a "media alert."

The user hovers over or clicks on the alert, which opens a large 900x400 window. What appears in the window is up to the marketer -- video, Flash, static images, interactivities, advergames, store finders -- virtually anything a brand might find useful.

Engagement times average 30-50 seconds. Advertisers only pay for engagements, not impressions; the settings on the bar are such that accidental rollovers are not counted.

Consumers can also drag and drop marketing messages into their social media platforms -- Facebook, Twitter, AIM, email, and more. The sharing feature encourages both longer and stronger interaction by the user, as well as free distribution of brand messages across users' social graphs. A recent program for Hershey's Kisses invited users to customize the wrapper on a virtual kiss and send it to friends and family through their favorite social channels. It gave Hershey a presence on lots of social networks through a single buy on their platform.

Of course, consumers' willingness to take a message viral depends upon the creative, and Meebo offers advice to marketers on how to make messages more viral. Additionally, because the platform is a permanent part of participating sites, it affords the opportunity for dayparting. Said Carter Brokaw, CRO of Meebo:

"One way in which we differ in the marketplace is that because we have a platform that is persistent on websites, we can serve impressions based on time, and that drives engagement."

Targeting naturally improves response rates. Marketers can choose demographic as well as psychographic and interest based targeting, or a combination of these techniques.


I like what these four companies are doing because their approaches start with a consumer insight and use it to create something unique.

For Solve, that insight relates to how human memory works. With EXPO TV it's our innate desire to understand what others think. AOL's Devil uses size, functionality, and low distraction to break through our distraction filters, while Meebo leverages our desire to interact with friends to drive advertiser value.

Leveraging consumer insight is surely essential to driving sustained engagement, and it's great that these and other companies are taking such distinct approaches to realize the same goal.

Jim Nichols is senior partner at Catalyst:S+F.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet

Jim Nichols is VP of Marketing for Apsalar. Jim has 20+ years experience in over 80 different categories, including developing successful positioning and go-to-market plans for more than 40 adtech and martech companies. He joins Apsalar after...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Jim Nichols

2010, December 14

Hi Bob,

Thanks for communicating your very strong and heartfelt view. here. For me, Captcha advertising is about a value exchange. People interact with them to get at content and experiences they want.

I don't agree with the "broad alignment" you mention, but I understand the point. There may be broad alignment, though I question that, but that doesn't mean it is correct. There is, after all, broad alignment in our industry that "agnostic" means neutral.

What I tried to do here was show four different kinds of engagement. In my view, an engagement that results in real brand communication is a legit engagement.

What impresses me about Captcha advertising is that MAJORITIES of viewers engage, at least by my definition of engage. They interact with an ad, and they process a message. That's an engagement to me. Ultimately, all marketing is about value exchange, and the reality is that we cannot support a free web with interaction rates of .08% or 2% or even 6% interaction.People engage with an entertaining or informative marketing experience because they want something out of it. Can be a good laugh, or important info, or access to the NYTimes.

I also think that many people will PREFER them to captchas because they are legible.

I share your POV on most research about media effectiveness. What makes me feel better about this study is that it is from Wharton, but we can debate the meaning of that. I also dont think that familiarity with captchas will diminish their effectiveness because the user must process a message in order to type it.

But I do so appreciate your willingness to take the time to put your views here. I wish more people took the time to disagree or agree. These are really important issues, so thanks for your POV.

Commenter: Bob Gilbreath

2010, December 14

Jim, I'm really disappointed to see you start off an article about companies that are allowing brand engagement with mention of Captcha advertising. This type of advertising is insulting to people who buy our products and represents the worst our industry has to offer in digital.

You don't have to read to far to see a pretty broad alignment around "engagement" being a person's active choice to be involved in marketing. Forcing a person to become a 3rd grader again and pointlessly fill in a blank with a brand tagline is utterly opposite of engagement.

Solve Media does not have the end user in mind and it upsets me to see yet another "promising startup" that has "cracked the code" on forcing the old, interruptive advertising model down people's throats. It's right up there with the guy who bought airport runway ads and the dude who invented those annoying video screens for gas pumps.

You quote the company's study, but fail to recognize that it's completely self-serving. First, EVERY new marketing tool gets some initial boost in research because people haven't learned to avoid it yet. Second, what about a study to see the emotion around people who encountered or remembered the ad? Focus group of one here, but I would certainly remember to boycott any brand that forced me to parrot back its ad copy.

The real "solve" for marketers is to stop hoping that the interruptive model of advertising will allow the old ways to continue. We've got to work together on creating marketing that people choose to engage with, and advertising that itself improves people's lives.

Bob Gilbreath

Commenter: ari Jacoby

2010, December 03

Great news on that front, Jonathan. The research is in on Purchase Intent & brand lift and the results are excellent!

Commenter: Jonathan Richman

2010, December 03

Okay, gents. I'm with you.

Let me put it this way. I'm not saying this doesn't work or that their numbers are somehow made up. So, as a marketer, I can see the appeal. I can ALMOST see the benefits over regular captchas.

However, I suppose I have an issue as a consumer. I avoid and ignore banners. I use AdBlock. But, here we are. You're forcing me to watch you ad. I can't do what I want until I "engage" with your ad. So, while there might be more "engagement" with Solve Media, let's be clear what it really is: forced engagement. I'm forced to engage before getting what I want.

Forced engagement isn't the same as voluntary engagement.

One more thing. I know they'll sell a ton of this stuff because marketers will want to buy it instead of some banners, so I wish I thought of it first. But that still doesn't mean they're creating real engagement. I'd love to see if this format impacts purchase intent or brand perception (or lowers it). How about that for the next study?

Thanks for the responses. Good rebuttals.

Commenter: Jim Nichols

2010, December 03

Thanks Jonathan,

I hear you, but I also believe that somehow content needs to get monetized.

We get everything in the world delivered, almost all for free, on our desktop. And a huge percentage of people want it, but won't plunk down a credit card because historically we gave it all away. And with the FTC talking about do not track lists, that will reduce ad revenue even more. We cannot support a professional content industry with 23 cent CPMs.

Also, and I only speak for me here, I prefer typing a tagline I can read to decoding gibberish.

But I really appreciate your willingness to share a different POV.

Commenter: ari Jacoby

2010, December 03


The #'s on Reddit are great. The audience their is particularly vocal about all forms of advertising, but Conde Nast is very supportive of our efforts.

At Solve, we maintain site security, improve user experience, deliver new revenue to publishers, and afford marketers an opportunity to generate real mindshare.

Old captcha doesn't transcribe books for the good of humanity -- it is merely fodder for the pay per click advertising cannon.

I'd love to share all the great research we've done on the effectiveness of Type-ins. Call me anytime to discuss.

Commenter: Jonathan Richman

2010, December 03

A Solve's Media "Type In" actually made the front page of Reddit not too long ago (http://bit.ly/dU7Dvy).

It wasn't well received.

A few of the top comments included:

"Vote with your traffic. Close the window. If you really want to send a message, email whoever the contact is."

"If any site I ever come to has obnoxious crap like that, I'll just find an alternate. There's no site on the net important enough that I'd go through with that kind of junk."

I'd have to admit that I'm with them. Whatever happened to the good old days when the Captcha was used to help transcribe books into digital format? I don't think this is quite as worthy of a purpose.