“The line between content and commerce has been blurring for a long time,” says Fred Destin, a partner at Atlas Venture in Boston.
“The pioneer in the space has been StumbleUpon, a great money-making machine that has been pipetting ads into users’ browser experiences for some time. People are starting to accept this mixture.”
Destin is an investor in Brainient, a UK-based advertising technology company founded by Romanian entrepreneur Emi Gal, who also sits on the board of the Digital Catalyst Fund accelerator in Bucharest.
This week, Brainient launched what might be described as the next generation of advertising: ads you can interact with via your Xbox Kinect hardware.
Its new product brings interactive advertising a significant leap closer to being plugged directly into your brain, enabling wave, point and a sort of “swim to zoom” method of navigating movie trailers and product advertisements.
Offline, merchandising serves as a useful proxy for this exciting new world of advertisements that are more like content. There have always been, for example, plush toys branded alongside kids’ films, figurines of comic book heroes… you name it.
But, until recently, online advertising has struggled to turn itself into the sort of desirable asset that generates spontaneous and prolonged engagement on that level.
Now start-ups in the UK and US are turning marketing into a form of play, just as the merchandising industry did before them, using gaming platforms and gesture-controlled hardware.
It’s pretty slick to watch, and compelling placed alongside traditional in-movie advertising. Product placement in Hollywood blockbusters looks mightily heavy-handed alongside the fusion of entertainment and advertising Brainient has created for the new Hobbit movie, for example.
And while companies such as Wymsee are busy building software to enable movie studios to catalogue props and costumes, enabling people to identify and purchase dresses, watches and cars they see and like, entrepreneurs like Gal are charging forward to create exciting, fully digital advertising environments that exist on the new gaming platforms that are eating Hollywood’s lunch.
“Gaming, after all, is a heavily produced environment,” says Destin. “And you’ve already made a purchase. You’ve chosen to be there. It’s also the biggest media format in the world now, bigger than movies.
“Finally, it’s already interactive. That means you can do whatever you want, so long as you don’t destroy context.”
Things are changing fast. The days of brands exerting total control of their messaging is a thing of the past to a generation surrounded by social and gaming technology.
If companies want to catch consumers early and shape purchasing intentions from a young age, as Nike and McDonald’s have so successfully done in the past, they’re going to be approached very differently.
“That’s why we’re creating this new, frictionless way of interacting,” explains Gal. “All you do is wave your hand.”
This new, context-based and personal approach appeals to an audience that is not only fragmented and promiscuous but also extremely demanding and sceptical of traditional marketing.
If brands want to successfully achieve the Holy Grail of “authenticity”, they now need to borrow it from others: hence the new social features baked in to digital advertising products.
And where previously big companies relied on search engine marketing to convey their messages, now display ads are back. But they’re more compelling and complex than ever before. At the same time, measuring the impact of marketing has become more difficult than ever.
“You might purchase a Nerf gun for your son on Amazon, but it’s highly likely he’ll have not only seen them in real life and on cable TV but also on the internet himself, perhaps in the process of browsing through different models,” says Destin.
That’s why, according to Gal, in this disorientating new landscape the only reliable ROI metric is interactivity of the sort he is building: “If you believe in the gamification of everything, this is the way ahead.”
In a sense, technology like Brainient’s is merely catching up with what has always happened offline with co-branded products and opportunistic merchandising.
Now, however, blending gaming, video and marketing messages is being done on the sly, with no control of the message and limited control of context from the advertiser’s point of view.
Consumers might initially baulk at the idea of addictive new forms of advertising. But look around your child’s bedroom and you’ll see that brand marketing dressed up as play has been going on a long time.
It’s just that now, adults are getting in on the fun.