The Fort Lee, N.J., company this month is conducting a beta test of new technology that delivers full-screen, full-motion commercials to consumers who agree to receive them. The files are downloaded to the computer's hard drive. Unilever is participating in the test.
BEEN DOWN THIS PATH BEFORE
Amicada is treading a path previously pioneered by now-defunct PointCast, which used proprietary technology and animation to send ad messages that its members could view offline. For the past few years, Excite@Home has delivered rich-media TV spots via broadband Internet access. Many advertisers convert commercials into lower-video-quality formats, such as Macromedia's Flash technology, that can be viewed on most Internet browsers.
Amicada claims its system is the solution to bringing emotional, storytelling ads to computer users and that it will attract to the Internet traditional advertisers that have been reluctant to adopt lower-quality Flash technology.
Participating consumers get a prompt notifying them that they have a new ad to watch if they choose to do so. Users don't have to be online to view the spots since the advertising is on the hard drive. The ads play not in a Web browser, as most rich-media ads do, but in a separate viewer the user must download.
Amicada's tool also addresses the question of bandwidth. The files download in the background when users are online so they don't interfere with the surfing experience, even if a slow-downloading dial-up modem is being used.
Amicada was founded in January 2000 by Jon Sumroy and Alan Wolpert, who worked together in Israel on brand-building assignments for package-goods giant Unilever.
"Our objective is to allow people to watch TV-quality advertising when it's convenient for them, irrespective of the technical specifications of their hardware," says Mr. Sumroy, VP-business development.
To the end user, the system doesn't reflect Amicada's brand name but is adapted to suit platform sites offering the service. For example, game site theglobe.com is calling the viewer "Globe TV." The others involved in the beta test are bookmark site Blink.com, household management site FamilyTime.com and three others Amicada declines to name.
"It's another way of getting users to see more value in what we're doing: `Enjoy good offers by downloading the Amicada viewer,' " says Ari Paparo, chief operating officer of Blink.com.
One advantage to Amicada's system for advertisers is that they don't have to make new creative for the Internet-they simply hand over a copy of an ordinary-format TV spot. Fuel, the integrated marketing unit of Havas Advertising's Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, New York, is trying the system out for a few brands it represents, including Volvo Cars of North America. Unilever has signed on to the test with three of its brands: Dove Sensitive Skin Bar, Lipton Brisk iced tea and Salon Selectives haircare.
"It's a way to boost the effectiveness of our traditional media work," says Charles Newman, a market research manager for Unilever's interactive brands. "It's not a replacement for TV but will enhance it."
will consumers watch ads?
Amicada's permission-based model raises the Internet-age-old question of whether consumers will voluntarily watch commercials.
Amicada recommends three familiar methods for coaxing people to do so: winning points or other incentives; gaining access to premium content; and receiving entertaining video content, such as music videos or movie previews, that also would include advertising.
Users would get credit for watching the commercial only when they watch it in full. Amicada includes a patent-pending technology it says proves whether users have watched the whole spot.
When the commercial ends, users have 10 seconds to take some action, which may be to respond to an offer, get more information or simply to close the viewer window. Otherwise, advertisers pay nothing. Mr. Wolpert, Amicada's VP-marketing, says the advertiser "cost per completed view," or CPCV as Amicada calls its version of a cost per thousand, is $1.
Greg Smith, managing director at Carat Interactive, New York, a division of Aegis Group's Carat Worldwide, says he likes the permission and pay-for-performance aspects of Amicada's formula, but not its reliance on incentives.
"What we're trying to do on the Web is engage people, not twist their arm," Mr. Smith says. "I would rather entice someone. The person who's going to look at a laundry commercial is one who does a lot of laundry. We don't want to get everyone. We want to get the 20% who buy 80%."
Sean Black, VP-interactive media director of Grey E Media, the interactive media division of Grey Global Group's Grey Direct, New York, says he's especially interested in what Amicada is doing because one of his clients is Warner Bros., the studio arm of AOL Time Warner, and the technology lends itself to sending out movie trailers.
Two years ago, Grey partnered with Unicast, creator of technology often compared with Amicada's, to do a Superstitial for every Warner Bros. theatrical release.
Both Unicast's and Amicada's offerings download in the background. But the Superstitial uses Flash technology, putting a Flash file in the browser cache and playing the commercial while the browser is switching from one Web page to another.
rich-media ads in vogue
In a time when advertisers are increasingly turning away from banner ads in favor of bigger and more animated Web ads, Unicast's Superstitial has gained increasing popularity. Almost every major ad network accepts the format, as do many of the top portal sites, including AltaVista, Excite Network, and Terra Lycos.
Since the Superstitial plays during the Web user's viewing experience, it raises the question of whether advertising must be intrusive to be effective, and whether the context surrounding the ad matters.
With Amicada there is no context. "It's the difference between branded content and intrusive advertising," says Steve Vranakis, senior VP-interactive creative director for Interpublic Group of Cos.' Foote, Cone & Belding, San Francisco, which has developed its own Flash-based technology called the e-dent. "Amicada is like a focus group, a controlled environment," he says.
But Mr. Wolpert says context is not as important for emotional or narrative advertising. Says An-drew Deitchman, a Fuel partner and director of client services: "It'll be another interesting part of this test to look at contextual relevance vs. opt-in."
Another important aspect to Amicada is its back-end tracking abilities. At the end of the commercial, a row of buttons appears to allow viewer interaction. The buttons can be customized depending on advertiser needs.
For example, after the Salon Selectives spot is shown, buttons will appear to take the consumer to the Salon Selectives home page, to a newsletter registration area or to an online store. Still others will allow the consumer to rank the ad and to answer research questions.
"That [is a facet] I'm interested in because I can close the deal," Carat's Mr. Smith says about the buttons. "That's why I'm saying this pay-for-performance intrigues me."
Amicada and Unilever have hired market research company Millward Brown to conduct a survey of the test, comparing Amicada's effectiveness with that of other online advertising formats.
"The idea of being able to get a meaningful brand message out there in a PC environment in a not very obtrusive way has tremendous potential and might be very effective," says Mr. Deitchman. "We'll figure that out based on the learning that we get from this test."