America Online opens back door for rich media

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America online, known for its static ads, today opens its doors to rich-media interstitials.

Created by BoxerJam Productions, Charlottesville, Va., the full-screen, animated ads will run during breaks in BoxerJam's online gameshows: Out of Order, Strike a Match and Take 5. The ads will also run on BoxerJam's Web site, which represents 10% to 15% of its overall traffic; the rest of its 600,000 unique monthly visitors come from AOL. More than half of its players are women; the majority are mothers.

Initial advertisers are Avon Products, Omaha Steaks, Preview Travel and discount club Value America. All the ads were created by BoxerJam's in-house unit and cost $30 per thousand impressions.


Depending on the ad deal, BoxerJam can produce interstitials as part of a package or charge extra for them, said Temple Fennell, director of advertising.

The interstitials, or intermercials as they are called to reflect their TV-quality, are significant because AOL as recently as last August said it would not run rich-media ads anytime soon. Speaking at Procter & Gamble Co.'s FAST summit, AOL President Bob Pittman said most of the service's users are still using 14.4 K modems and rich-media ads would interfere with their experience.

While BoxerJam's games have been on AOL since 1995, it's only been since last month, when a new version of its software was released, that it's been able to serve ads within its games, Mr. Fennell said. (To play the games, users must download software, which can quickly serve the Flash-animated ads.)

The new software is also designed to act as its own browser independent of AOL, Mr. Fennell said. It uses DoubleClick's DART ad-delivery system and is compatible with software from most standard ad-delivery systems, such as NetGravity and MatchLogic. As a result, Mr. Fennell said, "We're able to offer our advertisers standard, audited reports."

CliqNow, New York, a division of 24/7 ad network, represents BoxerJam for ad sales.

While America Online serves pop-up interstitials, they're usually static and intrusive, forcing users to click on them to go away, said Jim Nail, senior analyst at Forrester Research.

"Rich media is one of those terms that's beginning to get so many definitions," he said. "To some people it means streaming video, to others it means complex, in-depth interactivity within an ad."

"When we couple an intermercial with a banner, it's nonintrusive," added Mr. Fennell, noting the intermercials try to motivate a click through on banner ads placed on the screen at the end of a game.


While Mr. Nail finds it surprising that AOL is letting an outside company serve ads, he thinks it's a positive step, and a sign that AOL is loosening up its policies to accommodate advertisers.

"To a large extent, the whole rich media side of things is being driven by advertiser demand," he said. "Advertisers are saying they won't tolerate the limitation on banners ads that put them in handcuffs."

While America Online needs to evolve past static ads, Marc Johnson, senior analyst at Jupiter Communications, said the mantra here should be: "Proceed with extreme caution."

"All the benefits of rich media can be wiped out pretty quickly by error messages or even the perception of a slowed experience," Mr. Johnson said.

Copyright November 1998, Crain Communications Inc.

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