For the past two years, as advertising dollars have become more scarce and ordinary online display advertisements such as static banners and buttons have produced ever-worse click-through rates, rich media has been universally trumpeted as the future of Internet advertising and possibly its savior. Although rich media has become the norm in interactive advertising and it does indeed hold the potential to help reinvigorate the struggling industry, it has not produced the results that the online advertising industry was expecting. Understandably, advertisers want to know why their expectations continue not to be met.

The answer to why rich media has failed to meet these expectations lies not in the concept of, or technology behind, rich media, but rather in the implementation of the advertisements themselves and the metrics used to evaluate the results of these campaigns. The first problem arises from the assumption that rich media possesses some magical quality that makes it an inherently better advertising format. The animation, video, sound, and interactivity that can be included in a rich media ad are more engaging and users generally notice them more and spend more time with them, but unfortunately, earning the audience’s attention is just the first step. Once they are engaged, they must either leave with a stronger awareness and greater regard for the brand or click on the ad and become a customer. If the creative does not clearly promote the brand or offer a strong call to action, it will undoubtedly fail.

The second problem is due to a lack of meaningful online metrics. Advertisers still tend to rely heavily on click-through rates when they evaluate the results of an online campaign. While rich media represents a vast improvement on online brand advertising, it has only had a minor impact on direct response advertising, with that impact being mainly attributable to the fact that rich media is better at garnering that first look from users. Click-through rates are fundamentally a direct response metric. Do advertisers expect a print or television advertisement dedicated to branding to result in increased orders for in-depth marketing materials? Of course not, but that is analogous to what they expect to see for their online advertising – increased traffic to their marketing websites where presumably the consumers will explore the brand in greater detail.

As with print and television advertisements, the idea behind rich media is to use the ads themselves to build brand awareness and affinity. Evaluating the branding effectiveness of advertising is well established for traditional advertising, but the online industry has yet to adopt a widely accepted set of universal metrics and methodologies that specifically measure the brand impact of Internet advertisements. Without a standard way to measure the branding effectiveness of these advertisements, advertisers cannot determine if their limited ad dollars were well spent nor can they make any direct comparisons between campaigns, across websites and networks, or between different creatives.

Despite rich media’s great potential, it cannot succeed without first addressing these problems nor is it the only thing necessary to move online advertising to the mainstream where it can truly contend with more traditional media, such as print, television, and radio. The first issue is solved simply by designing advertisements that have a defined goal and are clearly dedicated to that goal, be it building a brand or soliciting a response from the audience. There must not be a disconnect between any of the many levels involved in implementing these advertisements – from the top down, everyone must be on the same page. From identifying the audience, setting the goal, conceptualizing and designing the creative, to determining what venues on which to run them, each member of the team must be plugged into the actions of all of the others.

The second issue, identifying and establishing industry-wide standard brand metrics is slightly more problematic. The Interactive Advertising Bureau, the largest online advertising trade organization, has been slowly trying to develop standards, but is usually years behind the industry as a whole. Without a forward-looking broad-based uniting body that represents all stakeholders, effective standards cannot be set. Perhaps the greatest obstacle is actually identifying ways to measure these brand attributes quickly, consistently, and cost-effectively. Only time and trial and error will eventually overcome this problem. In the meantime, it is important for each advertiser to decide how they will measure online brand impact and to maintain that methodology across all of their online campaigns.

Rich media is a tremendous format that offers advertisers the opportunity to expand their brand through the Internet. By maintaining cohesion throughout the process, advertisers can ensure that their rich media campaigns lead to measurable results – assuming that they concurrently develop a set of meaningful brand metrics. Although, as in life, there are never any guarantees, rich media is a better way to capitalize on the branding potential of the Internet.