Attack of the Killer Audio Ads: Part II (Nov. 28, 2000)

“Lawrence,” said the voiceover on an animated Disney ad for costumes, “you can make Halloween happen by magic.”

In an age when perfect strangers know what brand underpants I wear, I am long past the stage where I am surprised that Web marketers know either my name or the fact that I have children.

But when that pitch comes from a young woman apparently living in my email box, it does stand out from the crowd.

Say hello to the latest step in the inexorable evolution of interactive advertising: ads that call out to you by name. It used to be that junk mail just took up space in your mailbox. Now it talks to you.

“Suddenly I’m getting a message personalized just to me, and that gets my attention,” says Brad Epstein, executive creative director at’s i-traffic unit, who is currently building a campaign that uses personalization technology provided by Dynamics Direct. “Especially when it starts with, ‘Hey Brad.'”

“A lot of people are repurposing TV commercials and stuffing them into [email] boxes,” says Roberta Berrent, Dynamics Direct’s marketing director VP. “Our technology links up customer information with rich media assets.”

You’re One In A Million, Kid

Spots distributed by Dynamics Direct reach into the advertiser’s database in real-time and extract not only the target’s first name, but everything else needed to personalize the ad as tightly as possible.

“If you send out a million emails, a million customers each get a message specially constructed for them based on what the advertiser knows about them,” Berrent says. “That includes different names, different product offers, different video, different graphics.”

Dynamics Direct is one of a number of companies experimenting with Internet personalization technologies, both for email and web sites. MessageBay is soon to go live with, which will allow the user to lip-synch his/her own voice with an animated puppet. It can then be sent via email or posted on the user’s own site.

“What this allows people to do is have a talking person on their site acting as a guide,” says MessageBay CEO Jon Louis. “They can revise what the avatar is saying anytime they wish — just click and record.”

But At What Cost?

“We think there is a great deal of potential for rich email and the like,” says Jupiter analyst Marissa Gluck. “But there are a couple of inhibitors to greater acceptance in the advertising industry.”

Not least of these is cost. Rich media is a lot more expensive to produce than html or text.

“Response rates for html and text are high enough that there’s very little incentive to use rich email when html is good enough and already very efficient,” Gluck argues.

Not surprisingly, Dynamics Direct CEO Russ says that just isn’t so. He claims clients like Disney and American Express are finding that response rates are doubling and tripling with personalized audio messages.

“The whole economic model is based on the fact that the incremental increase in response over text or html will more than pay for the cost of production and deployment of rich media,” he insists. “It’s doing so in spades.”

Gluck also points to the logistics of addressing by name every recipient of a personalized email. Because, yes, somebody does have to actually say all those names. But the folks who produce personalized messages claim it’s no big deal.

Remember the woman who shouted at me from my email client? They locked her in a studio and had her repeat thousands of names, mine among them, each with various inflections.

“If they put somebody in a booth and have them record 3,000 names, they’re covering 75 percent of the population,” says Epstein of I-traffic.

Infected With the Technology Bug

But do people want emails that shout out to them the moment they are opened?

“There’s a good side and a bad side to personalized email,” admits David Sokolic, marketing VP for Gizmoz, which plans to use the technology in its “smart envelopes,” folders that contain rich media advertisements. “The good is that it’s addressed directly to the user and proven by far to be the most effective form of online advertising. The big danger is that we’ll see response rates fall off just as we did for banner ads.”

And there are, inevitably, techno-glitches. Despite vendors’ protestations that the technology does not require broadband, numerous examples of personalized rich media emails sent to this reporter’s 40-something-k connection by various companies failed to deploy. And, when I clicked on one while offline, it froze the system and required a reboot.

“It’s the same old problem we had with rich media and banners,” says Gluck of Jupiter, which predicts only one-third of U.S. households will have broadband by 2005. “That is probably why there’s more potential in the b-to-b space.”

Dynamics Direct’s Gillam doesn’t buy those limited horizons: “We see this as a $10 billion industry in the next four years [as] the Internet, interactive TV and broadband all come together.”

Gizmoz’s Sokolic isn’t quoting numbers, but he thinks his company will be left standing even after the public overdoses on email pitches, since once the emailed “gizmo” is downloaded onto the desktop, it continuously updates itself with new products and special offers, eliminating the need for an ongoing barrage of email.

“We believe many users are getting fed up with all the email that they’re getting,” he explains. “That’s why we like to say we’re a ‘viral marketing solution’ — a way to infect the user.”

Which is sure to make an ad-wary public feel a whole lot better.

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