Rich Content Riches: The Trade-offs and Payoffs of the Rich Media Web

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Nov 19, 2009

November 2009 Issue

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What is Rich Media (Rich Content)?

Since the emergence of the World Wide Web, steady improvements in bandwidth and compression technology have vastly enriched the user experience offered by internet-delivered content. As we eagerly await each successive advance, we've gotten used to thinking that when it comes to content, richer is always better. More audio, more video, more animation-this is the stuff that makes today's web attractive and exciting, though not necessarily more efficient or more useful. Since most of this eye candy is either part of or is sponsored by advertising, it seems safe to assume that the richness of the content correlates to the outcome desired by advertisers, which is, by and large, to induce us to make some kind of purchase. However, while that assumption makes sense on the surface, it turns out that the reality is more subtle and complex than suggested by the simple proposition that "rich content sells."

The complications begin with precisely defining the term "rich content," which is often used interchangeably with "rich media." Most observers agree that while these terms differentiate static content (text and still images) from dynamic content (animation, video, audio, etc.), there's more to rich content than motion. What are those other characteristics that make content rich? The answer depends on whom you ask and what industry they work in.

"The use of new or trendy content types, does not, in itself constitute rich content," says Todd Eckler, VP of print and publishing solutions at North Plains Systems, Inc., a vendor of hosted and installed digital asset management (DAM) and publishing solutions. "For an ebook, for example, text and images would be the standard experience, but an embedded video or link to a Flash-based game would be considered rich content, because it draws the consumer to a richer experience. So rich content combines multiple media types to enrich what would otherwise be a one-dimensional experience."

Another aspect of what makes rich media rich is that it presents a potential customer with a high degree of detail, says Scot Wingo, CEO of Channel Advisor Corp., maker of online retailing applications and services used by companies such as Dell, Honda, PETCO, and Home Depot. "As a customer, do I get a sense of how the product feels to the touch, or what it's made from, or how it's put together? With features such as zoom, enlarge, alternate views, video, and rotation, you can get a sense of all these aspects of a product that you simply cannot get from a static image."

Wingo argues that these features are not simply gimmicks but are instead part of the core function of informing the customer about the product. "Both the ‘a picture is worth a thousand words' and the ‘show, don't tell' clichés really hold true," he says. "Visuals are a more efficient, more meaningful way of conveying information. Imagine a product page for a handbag, and compare a static shot captioned ‘pebbled leather' with the visceral experience of viewing that leather up close in a zoom viewer, where you can really get a sense of how it feels."

Digital Content Tools of Engagement

Using a tool such as a zoom viewer requires active participation, a characteristic that is common to many definitions of rich content. Such efforts at engagement can take a variety of forms, including data capture (inviting the user to enter text), games, and polls. This emphasis on engagement through interaction is a core concept at Veeple, Inc., a subscription-based provider of technology that makes streamed video "actionable" using overlaid clickable hot zones.

"For content to be considered rich it would have to be interactive," says Kathleen Greene, who handles Veeple's branding and media relations. "The online video viewing experience is quickly shifting from a sit-back, passive experience to a lean-in, interactive experience, which helps to deepen engagement by requesting customer participation."

Interactivity is also a key ingredient of a recent crop of websites that utilize rich media in a self-contained setting rather than as an embedded element within a more traditional webpage. One such site is Doritos Late Night (www.doritoslatenight. com), which uses augmented reality (AR) technology to allow chip purchasers to control a virtual concert by the band Blink-182 using a "marker" that is printed on the bag and read by the computer's webcam. Other examples of the stand-alone rich content approach include GE's site for its smart grid technology (http://ge.ecomagination. com/smartgrid) and Toyota's Prius Experience website for the 2010 Prius (www.toyota.com/vehicles/minisite/ newprius).

"The goal of an experience site is different from the goal of a traditional site like the Prius section on Toyota.com," says Scott Huebscher, interactive creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi LA, which developed the site. "On the experience site, the user learns about Prius features and benefits in an experiential way, using a combination of Flash, XML, JavaScript, and video. Once they are done exploring, they can then continue on to Toyota.com to learn more about the vehicle in the usual way, by reading specs and features, or by looking at styles and colors. So the two sites work in tandem toward a common goal."

Huebscher says the experience-focused design flowed naturally from the material. "Many of the third-generation Prius features are not easy to demonstrate in a print ad or even a typical 30-second spot. For instance, the vehicle has an optional solar-powered ventilation system that reduces cabin temperature when the car is parked in direct sunlight. We demonstrate that feature by letting the user adjust the outside temperature, which triggers video, animation, and text. And we also use hot spots for quick exploration of features that don't need as much explanation."

In addition to involving the visitor as a participant, Huebscher says, rich content allows "blurring the lines between entertaining and educating. The Prius Experience site is purely about the vehicle and its features, but the site is also fun to use and has engaging animations."

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