Screening calls

Business-to-business TV is slowly gathering pace and growing in dexterity, as Neil Whitehead discovers. Neil Whitehead is senior director at Fitch

Picture the scenario: salesman enters pristine offices of blue-chip City company to persuade marketing manager that his company’s scanners are the best that money can buy. Fifteen years ago, had such products existed, he would doubtless have been armed with a two-bit leaflet, well-practiced spiel and a sample product tucked neatly under his arm. By the Eighties the brochure would have progressed to full-colour, whizzy graphics and glossy photography. By the end of the decade our man will almost certainly have a laptop. And that laptop will contain such an original, entertaining and informative company, market, product and client story, that hands rather than heads will shake and contracts will be signed. Perhaps.

We’ve moved from a production society – where companies made money by making products, and where people sold products by selling the features – towards a knowledge culture. It’s all about selling information in an exciting and thought-provoking way, about communicating through innovation. It’s also about making complex things simple.

The technology is in place, the applications are vast and markets are ready and waiting to be swept off their feet, yet business-to-business television in the UK is still very much in its infancy. And it’s likely to remain that way until people begin to realise that although technology is vital to its growth and development, the future of business-to-business communication has nothing to do with selling technology. But it does have everything to do with entertainment, education and tailoring message to medium.

The problem is that those designing for the screen at the moment tend to be conventional designers who are simply transposing 2D ideas to the 3D medium. Hence the reason that the results are not only bereft of surprise and interactivity but often only allow users to access information in a linear way. This bears no relation to the way in which we act and react to stimuli in the natural environment, and goes some way to explaining why the really creative people working in this area seem to come from disciplines outside design – illustration, animation and film; a whole new breed who are able to co-ordinate and create for the screen successfully because they understand that it’s a live 3D environment, not a static 2D one.

As an analogy, the software designer is the equivalent of the builder and the screen designer is like the shopfitter. The truly creative multimedia designer, however, is the equivalent of the architect – controlling the process and realising the vision of the client or the objectives of the building. These are the qualities that many designers lack at the moment.

Whether the need is for something clear and accurate to allow a mobile phone salesperson to talk “turkey” about tariffs and networks to customers, or for a lively and absorbing application to help an accountant explain the ins and outs of deferred tax to the board of a manufacturing company, there is no shortage of applications for business-to-business on-screen communications. The only real limitation is the way the “programmes” are designed and delivered. As in any literature, packaging or Internet design project, you have to define the brand’s personality and translate it into the tone of voice that satisfies, if not exceeds, the expectations of the intended audience.

An example of this is the on-screen communications package which Canadian company Public Technology Multimedia created for Microcell – a company perhaps better known as the distributor of multimedia hardware, such as interactive kiosks for use in transport, retail and finance. To enable Microcell’s marketing and sales force to talk knowledgeably, consistently and comprehensively about the company, as well as focus on relevant case studies, the team created a colourful, animated, problem-solving, question-answering interactive presentation.

Formats similar to this are being used to develop the business-to-business activities of a vast number of industries. Corporations such as the bank and cash-handling company De La Rue are turning long, usually dull and complex sales processes into simple animated – and, most importantly – successful sales tools.

Another example is the on-screen instruction manual and catalogue designed for Iomega Corporation, a US manufacturer of removable storage devices (Zip and Jaz drives) for computers. Information and entertainment are given an equal footing, with the interface treated as a series of easily navigable activities rather than simple functions. Complete with specially commissioned sound and fast and furious graphics, it hits the needs of that market head-on. And therein lies the crux of the issue. No matter what industry your client is in, and irrespective of whether it’s trying to sell BMWs or blow-up dolls, the rules remain the same: you must design in a way that makes the right connection.

Over the coming years, I think we’re going to see satellite companies launching shopping, educational and financial products into the home. We’ll hear about more closed (limited access) systems within companies and more inter-office, national and international communications. The Internet will move on too because it’s already slow, clunky and, bar a few exceptional sites, pretty tedious.

In line with these developments, business-to-business screen communication can only improve. Once companies really start to question who and what they are and how they can gain competitive advantage, we’ll see the medium take off. The benefits are obvious. It can help educate staff to sell a consistent product. It can help differentiate one company from the next. It can be cost-effectively updated on a regular basis. And it can certainly inject a little life and vitality to the dullest presentation.m

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