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The new online ads

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Business marketers can be among the last to use new and exciting Web technologies to reach their target audiences. The upside to that, however, is that when these advertisers do finally trot out the latest bells and whistles, they can take advantage of all the lessons their consumer counterparts have learned.

For example, video may have debuted in consumer ads what seems like ages ago, but this year it's making b-to-b ads the talk of the Web. As broadband becomes the rule rather than the exception, b-to-b marketers are using the technology as a way to catch prospects' eyes and stand out from the crowd.

"Even a year ago, you couldn't do meaningful video," said Mick O'Brien, senior VP-creative director for interactive agency Digitas. "Now, we're seeing the expansion of the Internet as a channel that's sometimes replacing traditional channels [such as television]. All of our clients right now are in some way, shape or form involved with video units."

Digitas is using video in the banner ads it recently created for FedEx Corp. The ads, which feature NFL players-the same ones that run in FedEx's TV campaign-and an enticing contest offer are static until the user rolls over them. Then an eight-second Flash video unit is engaged, O'Brien said. The messages are designed to push users to a landing page that promotes FedEx Ground and its air service by way of a fantasy football-like weekly game.

"We're really going after small businesses and people who are football fans," said Steve Pacheco, FedEx's director of advertising. "There's something to be said for entertaining and engaging the customer while they are taking in our message. We're doing it against the backdrop of, `Come learn more about our services.' "

Other types of dynamic content are also finding their way into b-to-b ads. For example, Agency.com recently created a campaign for British Airways that targeted business and consumer travelers. The banner ad used a simple XML feed to change fares as they went up or down during the day.

"We've added to those units a dynamic booking engine, too. If you're interested in a fare, your departure city is prepopulated [a user's location is determined by identifying their IP address] and you can be taken directly to a landing page with all your options," said Tom Ajello, the agency's VP-creative director. "We've taken all the extra clicks out for the user."

Advertisers that want to take XML one step further are using Ajax, or Asynchronous JavaScript and XML, programming. This technology brings a deeper level of interactivity to an ad. It also makes content and mini-applications load and render more quickly, which is perfect for advertisers that only have a few seconds to catch a prospect's eye. Today, the technology is making its way into business-to-consumer ads, but Ajello said it's only a matter of time until it starts making deeper inroads into the b-to-b space.

Getting creative with format

Although video is hot today, another option-inspired by the business-to-consumer world-that may hit big is podcasting, which can be used for audio advertising, said Jeremy Lockhorn, Avenue A/Razorfish's group director, creative strategies. One of the agency's clients, Verizon, is sponsoring two daily ESPN podcasts. The podcasts, audio files that broadcast ESPN content, are available for free download from the ESPN.com site. Each five- to 10-minute podcast will begin and end with 15-second audio spots promoting Verizon's Online DSL product. Because podcasts can be done with any RSS feed, the barrier to entry is low. They are a perfect fit for publishers that, until now, have given away podcasting content as a way to promote their brand.

"Podcasting is getting a lot of great buzz. It's an effective way to introduce more information in the form of a nontraditional ad," Lockhorn said.

While many agency experts said the banner ad is not only alive and kicking but thriving as well, some agencies and publishers are looking at banner alternatives. Technology publisher CMP Media created a new corner unit that appears to fold forward for its customers, exposing a large ad. This keeps the ad from being too intrusive but still gives advertisers plenty of real estate. Users who opt not to click see a small scrolling company logo in the upper right-hand corner of the page.

CMP in January launched a campaign for Sun Microsystems using the unit, said Michael Grover, director of marketing for CMP Media's TechWeb Network. "About 8% of people who see the unit open it, and 10% of them click on it. It's pretty cost-effective [for advertisers] because the way we sell it is on a weekly basis across a range of sites."

Providing relevant content

Another alternative, Lockhorn said: Content modules that look like they are part of the editorial content of a site. "These are modules that have in-line stories. They are actually a bunch of ads that look like they are stories because they have a short paragraph," he said. "They are educational content, and you can click through and read more about it."

These content modules work especially well in the b-to-b world, where prospects typically spend much more time researching before making a purchase. The danger, of course, is that these ads can look too much like content, which can lead to the audience feeling like it's been tricked into reading.

Still, this idea of providing utility and service in an advertisement is one that resonates with b-to-b advertisers, said Daniel Bonner, creative lead, executive creative director at AKQA London.

Bonner said his agency is developing games and desktop applications that deliver advertising messaging on desktops and mobile devices such as cellular phones and PDAs.

"This is taking off on a steep climb," he said. "We're building in functionality that's relevant. When you make them really smart and relevant, it all feels like it's content rather than a message that's interrupting in an aggressive way." 

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