These options range from marketer-sponsored icons and animated clips delivered via e-mail to screen savers packed with voice-overs and hidden links.
These attention-getting gimmicks offer an alternative to more broadly used rich-media technologies, such as animated banners or interstitials from Excite@Home's Enliven or audio programs from RealNetworks. Rich media is any ad or content ranging from streaming video and audio to animation.
MARKETERS HAPPY SO FAR
While it's unclear how long the niche rich-media tools will be in vogue, marketers seem happy with initial data collection and site traffic.
"Aside from the branding that comes through in a fun fashion; it's great ROI," said Lycos VP-Marketing Jan Horsfall.
Lycos partnered with rich-media marketing company togglethis to create "Superheroes & Sidekicks," an interactive, animated game show launched last month starring mascot Lycos, a black Labrador retriever that fetches things from the Web. In 12 toggle trivia game shows, which users sign up to have e-mailed to them, the dog is animated as a superhero; at the end of the spots, users are encouraged to click through to sites in the Lycos Network.
Toggle shows are the brand name for the animated shorts or objects that can be downloaded to a PC. A toggle character can react to cursor motion, for example, in the interactive game.
Volkswagen of America is sponsoring the first four episodes, and while Mr. Horsfall declined to say how much the automobile marketer paid, he said Lycos covered expenses to produce the entire series in just four episodes.
While the toggle shows aren't a way to reach the masses, Mr. Horsfall admitted, projected participation figures are so high -- Lycos expects 1 million downloads, with 95% expected to watch all 12 shows -- it "becomes such a good participation ratio" that it's worthwhile, he said.
In a recently launched toggle series, Virgin Atlantic Airways partnered with New Line Cinema to promote "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me." In four of the 12 toggle shows, Virgin CEO Richard Branson appears at the end as an animated caricature and asks users to click on him to enter a sweepstakes.
"At the end of the day, it's all about data collection," said Bill Danylko, manager-interactive marketing for Virgin Atlantic. When users sign up to get the e-mail shows, Virgin asks about their travel habits, using the data to build e-mail marketing campaigns.
Virgin, which expects to spend $2 million in online marketing this year, is projecting the toggle shows to generate click-through rates of 15% to 25%, compared to banner click-throughs of less than 1%.
E-Media, New Canaan, Conn., handles online ads, with iXL, San Francisco, recently redesigning the Virgin site (www.virgin-atlantic.com).
DOWNLOAD TIME AN ISSUE
But almost all of these specialty applications -- ranging from togglethis to Comet Systems, which creates customized, animated cursors on branded sites; and ThingWorld.com, which makes animated icons -- require downloads of a few minutes to 10 minutes or more, depending on the user's connection.
That's why most ThingWorld.com clients are entertainment companies touting brands with a hard-core following, said Maura Welch, general manager-marketing.
This week ThingWorld.com expects to announce a deal with Tour de France and one with Cyrk to implement "Things," as the branded icons are called for short. For promotional marking company Cyrk, they will go into the Beanie Babies Online Club. Other clients have similarly devout fans, including Comedy Central's "South Park" and the World Wrestling Federation.
The company's animated icons and voice-embedded screen savers are "not interrupting the user's experience," Ms. Welch said. "These fans are extremely appreciative of this content" and don't mind the time it takes to download new content, or that a screen saver may be sponsored by an advertiser.
ThingWorld.com derives its revenue from production fees and a share of e-commerce and advertising on click-throughs. It's trying to bring more advertisers into co-sponsorships of products, Ms. Welch said, noting the company is talking to client Goodmark Foods' Slim Jim meat sticks about sponsoring WWF screen savers.
Since March, ThingWorld.com says 300,000 screen savers were downloaded for Wrestle Mania. In return, WWF snared demographic information about its fans it can use in future marketing programs.
Other rich-media tools for advertisers include Comet Cursor, which AT&T Corp. and Eveready Battery Co. used for online branding, using walking Yellow Pages hands and an animated Energizer bunny, respectively, as the cursor.
LONG-TERM VALUE UNKNOWN
The long-term value of these applications is still hazy, though.
Marissa Gluck, online advertising analyst at Jupiter Communications, said the "almost gimmicky" but "fun" applications probably boost brand awareness. But "in the future if they're widely adopted they'll become a victim of their own