THE STREAM TEAM
Rich media is enabling the Internet to deliver real-time video and audio content

By Dale Buss,
Brand Marketing, September, 1999
As cable, phone and other companies build the nation's broadband digital network, lots of potential applications are teeming around the existing bandwidth bottleneck, getting ready to flow into the vast new information pipeline through the Internet, even as it's still being put together.

Streaming audio and video are right at the front of the queue of applications, with their ability to deliver full motion and complete sound akin to TV. Some adventurous brand marketers, ranging from media and Web-based brands, such as CNN and 800.com, to makers and retailers of tangible goods such as Buick and Toys R Us, already are taking advantage of streaming technology with ads and other forms of communication to attract Internet users.

And now that broadband capacity is rising quickly, many other brands are expected to move this fall and find out what streaming - part of what the business calls "rich" media - can do for them.

"By Christmas, there will be enough broadband capacity out there to justify any brand marketer's decision to use rich media, because America has built its brands based on video advertising," says Jonathan Taplin, co-chief executive officer of Intertainer, a Culver City, Calif. - based company that aggregates video content on the Net. "Anyone who looks at the falloff of the use of banner ads on the Web also understands that if you have a full-motion video that can be clicked through to an electronic-commerce site, it's the ultimate platform for a brand."

Chuck Ball, vice-president of marketing and business development for FasTV.com, adds, "Several advertisers are just waiting to use this technology with their TV commercials." Ball, whose Los Angeles-based company gathers video content into searchable databases, says that former colleagues who now work at major mainstream brands "are waiting for developments to justify moving a substantial portion of their advertising budgets to the Internet. They just want to make sure that consumers have a quality experience. Streaming is one of the two keys that are going to unlock these big budgets for the Internet; the other is the ability to target users accurately."

"Streaming media offers a much richer creative palette of sight, sound and motion by which these advertisers can tell a fuller story about their brand, allowing for an emotional connection to be made with the consumer," says Aaron Rosenstein, marketing manager of advertising sales for RealNetworks, the Seattle-based company whose software 'players' are helping propel the new technology into widespread adoption.

Medialink Worldwide produces video news releases, which in turn make up much of the "B" roll that runs as background on a TV-news report while a reporter or anchor talks. But now the New York based company is staking its growth to Webcasting press conferences (outsourcing the transmission to Yahoo Broadcast) that "bypass media gatekeepers" and go directly to constituencies like investors and consumers, says Greg Jones, a vice president.

"The Web has become the dominant news medium from nine to five each day in Corporate America, and people are being encouraged to keep current with trends and deadlines," he says. "Video is what can reach those people and make information meaningful."

Microsoft Corp. recently created a separate streaming-media division that competes with RealNetworks for industry leadership.

It was this cascade of applications and expectations of brand-marketer interest in streaming that prompted one of the Internet's biggest movers and shakers, Yahoo!, a few moths ago to acquire Broadcast.com, the Dallas-based leading aggregator and broadcaster of streaming audio and video for consumer and business applications. Yahoo expects Broadcast.com to compromise a "powerful advertising and distribution platform" for Yahoo! and Broadcast.com's "content, advertising and business-service providers," says Tim Koogle, chairman and CEO of Santa Clara, Calif. Based Yahoo!.

Early Internet technology, of course, provided only for the transmission of static images like ones found in books, and for playing of brief snippets of sound. These files generally were brief clips that users downloaded to their hard drive for playing. They took a lot of time and computer memory. But in streaming, information is transmitted to provide real-time delivery of video and audio content. The streamed material travels through the Internet as encoded, compressed data, and the PCs decode the information and "play" it like a tape - without it taking up valuable hard-drive space.

The state-of-the-art on most PCs and Internet connections today, even with corporate intranets, continues to limit the smooth delivery of streaming media so far. It often appears as herky-jerky or interrupted images; and portions of an audio presentation can be broken or disappear altogether. But as broad-bandwidth infrastructure expands rapidly, and RealNetworks and other companies continue to unveil new software aimed at harnessing the possibilities of broadband, more and more brand marketers are quickly tapping into the possibilities offered by streaming media.

For brand marketers expectantly examining the potential of streaming media, 800.com Electronics, an on-line-only retailer of DVD players, home theaters and other high-end consumer electronics, has become one of the early prototypes. The Portland, Ore.-based company converted a few short TV ads into streaming Web ads using RealNetworks technology and has been running them on the Internet for more than a year. Last spring, Milward Brown Interactive studied the impact of the ads and found that they had increased 800.com's brand awareness by 160%, brand recall by 213% and brand perception significantly as well.

"Their streaming ads helped 800.com take care of something that a lot of so-called direct marketing companies on the Web have missed. If people don't know who you are and don't trust your offer, they aren't going to buy from you," says Millward Brown executive vice president Rex Briggs. After the streaming ads ran for several months on the Net, he says, 800.com experienced "a substantial increase in people believing that 800.com is the type of company that is going to be able to deliver on its promises.

"I think the key is that with streaming ads you have the same depth of 'story' as with a TV ad, but you also have someone actively paying attention to the programming, and so they take a lot more of the message away from it. The downside of TV is that you just passively watch it and don't have to pay attention to it. So a streaming ad is three or four times more effective than watching a TV ad."

So far, only a few physical-world brand marketers have stuck their toes into the slowly growing river of streaming advertisements. General Motors' Buick division, Anheuser-Busch Cos.' Budweiser brand and McIlhenny & Co., the Louisiana-based company that produces Tabasco sauce, for example, each have attached streaming-video clips to banner ads on the Web in the last several months.

It isn't just bandwidth or other technology problems that have, so far at least, prevented traditional brand marketers from generating more than a trickle of streaming-media ads, says Stephen Condon, vice president of marketing for Intervu, a San Diego-based company that is creating streaming programming for brand marketers. He maintains that the thinking of brand marketers hasn't yet caught up with the possibilities being offered by streaming.

"With streaming media, brand marketers are going to have to become more sophisticated in terms of how they think about their brands," Condon says. "They suddenly have the ability to add more personality and depth to their brands on the Internet, and it's not as simple as just converting a 30-second TV spot. They've got the opportunity to really communicate with people on-line and to take them much deeper into what their brand represents. So they have to have a robust definition of what their brand is and what it represents, so they can be consistent in communicating it with streaming media."

Meanwhile, however, some brand marketers are going ahead with using streaming media to enhance aspects of consumers' experience on their Web site. For example, Toys R Us, the giant toy retailer, has experimented with providing and on-line "tour" through one of its stores using streaming video and audio, Condon says. And Yahoo! already is using Broadcast.com technology to stream video clips at its sports-news site.

"We're seeing possible applications all over e-commerce," says a spokeswoman for Yahoo!. Streaming "will provide a way for merchants to merchandise more effectively and especially to give information on products that might be a little more complex, in helping the purchaser to understand them better."

But while packaged-goods and other brand categories are only now ready to begin busting into the streaming - media arena, their counterparts among information brands already have seized opportunities to harness streaming - not only to build their brands but also, more immediately, to actually improve their on-line products. CNN, Bloomberg, ABC News, Cnet, C-SPAN and Fox News are among the information brands that recently have made or, this fall, will make available at their Web site an archive of current and recent programming that will transmit streamed excerpts to visitors.

Los Angeles-based FasTV.com is one of the major players in this fast-growing new market for streaming media. Using a sort of search engine that plumbs video images instead of Web pages, the company aggregates all the content for clients, such as CNN, and makes it available either at FasTV's Web site or on the brand-marketer client's site and allows consumers to search the topics, phrases or key words. Advertisers sponsor the service, and FasTV and the brand marketer share revenues.

"It makes for an intensely personal viewing experience," says Chuck Ball, vice president of marketing and business for FasTV. And for brand marketers, "it doesn't affect their 'native-eyeball' or Nielsen ratings. We don't compete with long-form video. We take their long form and make it digestible and searchable so consumers can come into FasTV.com and get exactly what they're looking for."

Similarly, Virage, based in San Mateo, Calif. is aggregating all of the prime-time TV content generated by it's clients - including ABC, Fox News, CNet and C-SPAN - into Web sites that consumers will be able to search for specific streaming content. So if an avid fan of "General Hospital," for example, wants to see all the times recent shows on the ABC Web site when Luke and Laura are kissing, for example, Virage's software can do that, and the fan can watch each and every oscular morsel. A fan of the Fox Network show "The X-Files" could call up only the clips where the character known as the Cigarette Man is in the scene, and lovingly view each of those.

Streaming content used in this way offers some advantages to brand marketers, who may want to use these information brands as advertising vehicles, according to Carlos Montalvo, Virage vice president of marketing.

"The first thing that you get with this kind of content is very high-affinity content because, by putting it on the Net, we can let people watch what they want when they want to watch it," he says. "It gives searchable video on the Internet 'targetability' and 'quantifiability' in a way that broadband TV doesn't. So marketers can quantify an audience and specifically target it by content or by site."

Moreover, Web visitors are able to capture, for example, key frames associated with the streaming clip, and even e-mail them or post them to message boards. "So now, advertisers get not only high specificity of interest around a character, content or theme, but they also can take advantage of the 'viral' effect of the Web and have their [brand or products] transmitted to millions of other users," he says.

One early way for brand marketers to reap benefits from Virage's presence on its client Web sites will be at CNet, through its reviews of high-tech products. A viewer could request, for example, all the clips on CNet from the last six months involving reviews of personal digital assistants.

"So now," Montalvo explains, "someone like CNet can turn around to someone like 3Com and say, 'You know, that clip involving your Palm Pilot is the No. 2 clip on our site,'" and, presumably, leverage that kind of 'catalogability' into further advertising interest by 3Com."