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Ads that work harder

NETWORK How do you reach the right consumers? Make your advertising interactive. By George Cole
It is some time in the future and you are shopping at a supermarket. You insert your loyalty card into a kiosk, which greets you by name. By pulling information from your customer database, the kiosk knows you have a fine taste for wines, so it shows you a video clip of the week's special offer on Italian wines. If you want to know about any more offers, you simply touch a screen.

The technology to do all this is not quite there yet, but the potential offered by interactive technology has excited many in the advertising, marketing and communications industries.

"Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted," soap magnate Lord Leverhulme said. "The trouble is that I don't know which half."

The beauty of interactive systems is that they give companies feedback on the number of people taking an interest in their advert, how long they look at it and even which parts of the ad were most liked. A number of systems are being used for interactive communications, including CD-Rom, CD-i, point-of-information (POI) kiosks, interactive TV and the Internet.

Interactive Learning Productions (ILP) set up a multimedia division a year ago. Its director, Steve Grainger, says: "People are now looking at multimedia as a serious part of their marketing strategy." ILP developed a marketing CD-Rom for the Brewery, a London-based conferencing and banqueting centre. The disc includes images of all the food and drink on offer, a virtual tour, and an event planner to help companies organise meetings.

The Design Clinic has produced a pre-sales interactive system for the BSkyB satellite TV service, using a CD-i player connected to a TV. The system, which is in more than 550 stores around the UK, includes video clips from the various channels and a guide to different packages.

A growing number of companies are using the Internet to market their name or brands. The drinks company Carling has a Web site aimed at 18- to 25-year-olds (the largest group of lager drinkers). The site includes Premier League football match updates and team and merchandising information.

Thomas Cook's site has a worldwide database of more than 100 countries, and users can find hotel and resort information. There are also timetables and facilities for booking. When a new secure payment system, developed by Visa and Master Card, comes into operation, people will also be able to pay over the Net.

The number of potential users of a Web site is enormous: last year, more than 300,000 people sent electronic Christmas cards to friends and relatives around the world, from the Thomas Cook site. "The message we got back from focus groups was that people want to be excited by a Web site," says Colin Macklin, director of consumer futures at Thomas Cook.

Although most Internet users are men aged 16-25, more younger users are hooking up, especially as many schools are now linked to the Net. "The Net isn't about age, it's about attitude and your capability to handle the technology. As the profile of Net users expands, it makes the medium more attractive to companies wishing to market their brands," says Felix Velarde, director of Hyperinteractive.

But many people are using the Internet badly when it comes to communication, says Belinda Mitchell-Innes, strategic director at Carat Interactive: "Some companies have been seduced by the technology and thought that the medium is the message," she says, "so you have some companies putting their TV adverts on the Net. The Net is very slow, so you have to ask, `what sane, sensible person is going to wait 45 minutes to download an advert they've seen on the TV?'"

Steve Taylor, who runs The Design Clinic's Interactive Clinic, agrees: "Someone once described the Internet being like a poster site down a narrow country lane. Companies have to ask questions such as who is going to visit the site? Is it an appropriate way to promote the company? Is it cost effective?" The buzz-word is VFV, Value-For-Visit. If a Web site is well produced, people will return to it.

Some companies are looking at interactive TV systems, which allow users to call up adverts and ask for further information. The general feeling in the marketing industry seems to be that iTV is an interesting proposition, but its take-up is likely to be slow.

ILP: 01932 252211; The Design Clinic 0171 700 3712; Thomas Cook: 01733 502792; Carat Interactive: 0171 497 5241.