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Issue Date: October 2004

Digital marketing - the new 'new thing'?

October 2004
Grant Shippey

Has digital marketing finally caught up the branding power of its traditional cousins? With the advent of video in your inbox, appealing graphics and functionality on your website and the opportunity to create truly engaging and fulfilling customer experiences on the Internet, the Internet has re-spawned as a remarkable branding tool.

Brand builders need to devise engaging user experiences on their Internet sites and in their digital advertising. Without this advanced engagement of the users, we may as well return to the days of text-only e-mail and tiling watermarked logo backgrounds and tirelessly spinning insignias. Marketers need not to look at just best practise, but beyond it. Best practise forces thinking in similar directions, similar executions and similar experiences. Is best practise stifling creative thought? I do not mean those terribly creative people at your agencies, but creative thought and reason. The capacity to match products and markets woven together with unique customer experiences, create and maintain brands that win - consistently.
User experience needs to be firmly ratified as an essential part of the brand building range of equipment. Immeasurable hours are dedicated to customer experiences in stores and other more traditional touch points. The same vigour and energy needs to be devoted to user experiences on the web. When last did you embark on an aggressive focus grouping or vigorous usability examination prior to launching your new product onto your existing website? Or did you just roll out the same formula that you used for the last one? User experience matters, user experiences are vital, and memorable user experiences lead to results.
Experience can be defined as 'an active involvement in an activity', how many web sites that you have created, managed or visited can claim an active involvement from users - other than departing for a more engaging experience. Do most commercial websites just sit there in limbo, limping along to the next pathetic experience, frustrating users and damaging brands? The traditional marketer needs to keenly consider the negative effects on their well-polished brand of a negative or frustrating user experience.
Enough trite and retribution and onto the substance...
The advent of Rich Internet Applications (RIAs) is the holy grail of user experience. Rich Internet Applications combine the best of the desktop world with the best of the web, and all married to the best of communication. Forrester Research defines them so: Intelligent apps that execute code near the user to create rich, engaging user experiences on the Net
Referring to the simplified quadrant diagram, one can remember the advent of the web in the bottom left hand corner. Very little functionality coupled with very low graphic appeal. These sites generally sported twirling logs and 'hyperlinks' to other content (Great appeal and freshness, at the time, but there is very little meat on these bones).
Then came the Internet being able to talk to a database and Internet Applications were spawned. These applications provided functionality to users like never before but they looked like one of Cinderella's sisters. Generally designed by techies with no consideration for brand or aesthetic sensibilities, but rather pure functionality as they envisioned it. These applications made the web really useful for things like Internet banking, searching and the like.
Then trundled in Macromedia's Flash and the web became populated with whooshing graphics and audio coupled with very little substance... much like Cinderella (only wants to get to the ball to meet Prince Charming no other real focus in life). The web was dragged in another direction entirely - ruled by designers with no consideration of functionality or the need to create something truly useful. These 'experiences' paid very little attention, generally, to user intuitiveness or the capacity for users to stomach weird and wonderful navigation paradigms that confused and irritated, rather than endeared.
Subsequently the technology and wherewithal for Rich Internet Application was invented. This kind of experience is starting to populate the Internet - hopefully colonising it beyond recognition. These Rich Internet Applications combine the power and functionality of database-driven system united with the elegance and user engagement capabilities of Flash. Now the web can sing and dance and get you your favourite drink simultaneously.
Another grand feature of Rich Internet Applications is speed. Through some clever code conjuring, most application can be deployed for less overall bandwidth than traditional applications. They achieve this trick through truly separating the front and backend of your sites leaving data neatly in XML or web services, and front-end downloads once, just once. No pesky page refreshes every time you select another option like destination or room type of date.
I see you, sitting reading through saying this is all just hype again, I remember this one, and I recall the bubble... I remember the bull. Well why do you not whip out your Internet browser and take a look at some of these puppies in action.
www.miniusa.com - build your Mini from scratch while your total wracks up with every stripe and metal finish you drag and drop onto your pocket rocket.
www.broadmoor.com - this one screen booking interface for a grand little hotel lets users book a hotel room in one step, it checks availability and pricing seamlessly in the background while you are playing around fiddling between the presidential and honeymoon suites.
www.ikea.com.au - custom design your own storage units from the European design leader, tinker with the colour and positions and pricing options.
www.gap.com/more/</a> - the sassy retailer lets users browse through their television and print commercials and buy the things they saw, neat, slick, clever.
The Rich Internet Application breeds the rise of online branding. Giving marketers the tools to create engirdling sites that delight users and manufacture memorable brands. For an extensive list of examples, case studies and how-to's go to http://www.macromedia.com/resources/business/rich_internet_apps
Source: Grant Shippey is the chief executive of digital design firm, Amorphous. He sits on various industry bodies and lectures at numerous conferences and tertiary institutions, all while playing a pivotal role in the digital communications strategy behind many of South Africa's blue chips and forward thinking organisations. Amorphous is a digital design and software solution house.
For more information contact www.amorphous.net or call 011 380 6500.


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