Scroll through Rolling Stone's digital feature "The Geeks on the Front Lines," and your point of view zooms into a computer screen and onto a multimedia story about hackers engaging in simultaneous cyberwars.
It's the kind of immersive storytelling publishers and advertisers dream of, and it's made possible by HTML5, the coding language long considered the future of web design. But "Geeks" was also made possible by Intel's HTML5 Hub, which picked up the web-design cost for the multimedia story.
Intel hired digital agency Banyan Branch to maintain HTML5 Hub, an online community dedicated to pushing the boundaries of web publishing, and seek partnerships with publishers interested in incorporating HTML5 into feature packages. David Kang, chief digital officer at Rolling Stone publisher Wenner Media, thought it was a natural fit for the title's coming report on a simulated cyberwar conference in Miami. Banyan Branch hired HTML5 Hub member Todd Motto, 23, to help Rolling Stone build the story for the web.
While the story has no ads per se, it's a somewhat "native" ad for Intel. "HTML5 Article experience by the HTML5 Hub and Intel" is written underneath the story's byline.
Becoming an ad for Intel, however, "was never the intent," Vish Deshmane, Intel's manager-developer outreach programs, said. "If HTML5 Hub gets publicity, I really hope it's for what it can offer developers." Mr. Deshmane added that Intel has no editorial control over HTML5 Hub projects and that the community functions independently.
Intel has a similar editorial sponsorship with Vice Media for The Creators Project, a website covering the fusion of art and technology.
HTML5 is increasingly being used by publishers and advertisers to visually stunning results -- it was partially used to create The New York Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning multimedia tale "Snow Fall." But questions remain as to whether elaborate stories like "Geeks" will ever be profitable, at least without partnerships such as the Intel one. For "Geeks," Mr. Motto was paid a total of $5,250 for work done over two months, he said.
ADVERTISERS WILL FOLLOW
Paying a web designer more than $5,000 to build a single story from scratch is not a lucrative publishing strategy, especially when that story contains no ad units.
Mr. Kang said Rolling Stone's HTML5 efforts -- which include an August story about troubled former NFL star Aaron Hernandez -- are not meant to make money in the short-term. "When you start doing new things, you make certain investments and build an audience. And once the audience is there, the advertisers will follow," he said.
"Geeks" designer Mr. Motto finds HTML5 exciting because of its potential to render web pages identically across all web browsers, devices and operating systems.
"Since the iPhone, we've seen HTML5 take off as the preferred platform because it works on both smartphones and desktops," said Eric Litman, CEO of third-party mobile-ad server Medialets.
HTML5's potential as a comprehensive cross-device web language has yet to be realized, however. The interactive introduction to "Geeks" does not render on iPhones, for example. Mr. Litman said this is because HMTL5 websites still require minor platform-specific coding changes in order to make them render correctly. Mr. Motto said the web is still five to 10 years away from being fully standardized for HTML5.
HTML5 Hub's next projects will be done in conjunction with entertainment and gaming website IGN and content-sharing website Reddit. IGN publisher and Exec VP-Content Peer Schneider said the collaboration will result in "content as interactive as a video game." Reddit did not return multiple requests for comment.
Rolling Stone and IGN are building certain HTML5 features into their respective content-management systems so they can publish interactive feature stories more frequently and more efficiently, Mr. Kang and Mr. Schneider said. Both added that these stories would eventually include interactive ad units.
"A lot of traditional ad units have been commoditized over the years," Mr. Schneider said. "HTML5 creates something more specific, but more importantly creates something the audience really likes."
Mr. Litman said prices for rich media HTML5 ads have decreased to less than $10 on a cost-per-thousand basis from $35 in 2009. Mr. Kang said Rolling Stone charges more because it's a premium publication.