T-Commerce Infrastructure Puts Cable in Good Position for EBIF

George Singley, COO, icueTV

George Singley, COO, icueTV

January 14, 2011 – The cable industry appears to be well positioned to make TV-based commerce a key component of interactivity on the widely deployed EBIF platform, assuming MSOs can fashion business models that trigger widespread participation on the part of national and local purveyors of goods and services.

“The technology is done,” says George Singley, COO at icueTV, the provider of a transaction support platform that is rapidly gaining traction in the industry. “Now it’s a question of how the relationships among business people and cable operators are going to take shape.”

icueTV, a five-year-old company devoted to supporting commercial transactions through the existing cable infrastructure, recently was named as one of a handful of initial participants in Canoe Ventures’ new Collaborative Innovation Program (see December, p. 12). The program, which includes Canoe’s Innovation Lab, is meant to accelerate adoption of technologies that will help the industry use EBIF (Enhanced TV Binary Interchange Format) to drive revenues at the national level.

“Canoe has made clear to us they want us to be an integral part of their efforts,” Singley says, adding that icueTV will continue to work with individual MSOs to facilitate local t-commerce engagements. Buckeye CableSystem in Ohio is one such customer in the process of mounting a local commerce operation with the company, he notes.

In addition, icueTV’s transactional support system is now being used by the Comcast Media Center’s HITS AxIS group to provide its member companies a ready means to engage in t-commerce on EBIF. HITS AxIS-supported subscribers are being offered a wide variety of interactive t-commerce applications, including click-to-email, click-to-purchase, voting, polling and audio and video downloads. The end-to-end solution ensures fulfillment of obligations to all parties to a transaction and affords participating MSOs access to a suite of business and management tools for real-time data analysis, lead-generation tracking and other functions, Singley explains.

“We’ve developed a whole range of specific t-commerce applications with menuing support, but in reality we’re a services company,” he says. “Our forte is making transactions flow seamlessly and securely and making sure everything gets where it needs to go.”

In effect, it’s the t-commerce capabilities on EBIF that will produce the benefits to advertisers everyone is looking for with interactivity. For icueTV this means its mandate extends to support for offering discount pricing and fulfilling requests for information as well as enabling click-to-purchase, Singley says.

“T-commerce is about much more than buying things,” he notes. “It can be, I want a brochure. I want to donate to the Haiti Relief Fund. The 30-second spot may not lend itself to a reasoned purchase, especially where costly products are concerned. So the application in such cases becomes more about RFIs and click-to-call.”

The potential of what’s in store can be seen in the performance of HSN, a pioneer in t-commerce that began its interactive offerings on its own and other proprietary platforms and is now expanding into the EBIF domain. “The space we live in has already taken off, and we have a lot of results to prove that,” says Sean Bunner, senior vice president of HSN. “Our interactivity, which we call Shop by Remote, is in about 30 million homes today.”

To whatever extent operators intend to extend their video services into the multi-device realm, they will need to bring their t-commerce enhancements into those spaces as well, Bunner notes. In fact, he adds, “industry data shows [interactive commerce] has already taken off [in the mobile space]. eBay does a transaction every two seconds or something like that on mobile.”

People are eager for such options, he says. “One of the things we noticed while we were building our iPhone application [was that] people were already coming on the device and placing an order, using the Safari browser and having literally to scrunch every screen and expand it to hit the options and going through that entire process, which is actually a difficult user experience.”

Tablets, too, will be devices where the t-commerce benefits offered on the TV set will be welcomed by subscribers, along with companion apps that complement what’s happening on the TV screen, he adds. “The tablet world is going to bring that combined experience where you can get a lot of quick mobile interactivity but with nice high-quality video and pictures,” he notes. “Like everybody else, we see our customers consuming media in a lot of places and on a lot of devices. So we’re working very hard to not only be there but to have all those experiences coordinated.”

Having a transaction infrastructure in place to serve the TV-centric implementation of EBIF on all types of programming channels will put operators in a good position to extend their offers into the IP device realm. This could greatly facilitate emerging efforts to bundle the sale of ad exposures across all devices as a new approach to showing ROI on ad dollars and to streamlining the ad purchasing process for media buyers.

As explained by Singley, the icueTV platform is designed to work with multiple payment systems, including standalone systems like PayPal as well as those embedded with fulfillment houses like Amazon and Yahoo! “We’re working with PayPal so that subscribers can use that system to accomplish purchases,” he says. “But we go beyond that to allow consumers to use other payments facilitators. We monitor transactions, and if a purchase decision is made, we do the billing and move the information to the fulfillment source.”

In tracking every interaction and every message associated with fulfilling a request, icueTV puts the data and the power to adjust offers dynamically in the hands of the MSO, programmers and advertisers, depending on what roles each entity has with each application. “We have several portals that allow different parties to look into the system and control what’s happening,” Singley says.

“We embed our software in small servers at the headend,” he explains. “When an opportunity for interactivity is embedded by the content provider a bug appears on the screen. If the user opts in, the offer is displayed, allowing the user to navigate the offer using the up, down, left and right buttons on the remote control.”

At the outset of an engagement the icueTV platform ingests the advertiser’s data, and then it’s up to whoever is managing the ad, typically the content provider, to choose the menu template for a specific offer and fill in the specifics. “In five or ten minutes you have your interactive offering,” he says. “Then the content provider allows us to send the trigger that initiates the interactive opportunity.”

In keeping with the EBIF emphasis on simplicity and minimal graphics to enable applications to run on legacy digital set-top boxes, the icueTV t-commerce menus are simple text overlays that appear on top of an ad or program stream whenever a user clicks on the prompt button. Singley stresses the distinction between this approach, which keeps the user directly engaged in the programming or ad, and t-commerce apps that take the user away from the programming with full-screen promotional messaging and graphics.

“Our goal is to enhance content,” Singley says. “We don’t want to capture a majority of the screen. We don’t take the viewer anywhere.”

The technology has been tested and certified by “all the standards guys and by cable companies in the labs and in the field,” Singley says. “We have strong accounting and billing programs, and we are religious in adhering to all privacy programs.”

The question now is how pervasive t-commerce will become across the embedded base of 25 million or so EBIF-equipped set-tops. It will take awhile for consumers to acclimate to the idea that clicking on prompt buttons can lead to some important benefits, but once the buttons are ubiquitous with attractive offers behind them, t-commerce could emerge as the modern equivalent of coupon cutting and a convenient alternative to going to the computer to by online.

But before it becomes ubiquitous there will be a lot of experimentation as service providers and programmers look for apps that resonate with the public, says Ralph Nieves, director for strategic partnerships at icueTV. “There’s going to be period of time during which people try different things,” Nieves says. “They’ll be able to use our data mining to get information they need to look back and say, this works and this doesn’t.”

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