Happy Birthday To Banner Ads. Sort Of.

by Clara Jacob
November 20, 2014

You may have heard that this year marks the 20th anniversary of the banner ad.

The trouble is, people don’t know whether to sigh or celebrate.

Farhad Manjoo’s widely circulated article in The New York Times, “Fall of the Banner Ad: The Monster That Swallowed the Web” rips banner ads to shreds.

Manjoo calls banner ads “one of the most misguided and destructive technologies of the Internet age” which “have ruined the appearance and usability of the web.”

He complains about banner ads interrupting content, slams retargeting and even alleges that banner ads, along with the web itself, are in the throes of death.

Whoa. Who knew things were so dire? Manjoo’s piece is way over the top. It’s ridiculous to blame banner ads for everything that’s wrong with the Internet.

But, to his point, banner ads could be better. So to observe the banner ad’s 20th birthday, we shouldn’t sigh or celebrate.

We should innovate.

In The Beginning

In Fast Company’sThe Trailblazing, Candy-Colored History of the Online Banner Ad,”  you can see some of the first banner ads.

Article author Rebecca Greenfield notes that during early web days, banner ads helped make the web, which was like a big, scary new universe, a little less mysterious. Maybe like seeing a “Gas, Food, Lodging” sign in the desert.

Like all advertising tactics, banner ads have strengths and weaknesses. And as technology has changed, and people’s comfort with technology has changed, so have the strengths and weaknesses changed.

Then and Now

Greenfield notes that one of the first banner ads had a click-through rate of 44 percent.

Twenty years later, the average click-through rates are at 0.08 percent in the U.S.

Clearly click-through rates have become a weakness. Which is why we don’t rely on them anymore to gauge effectiveness.

On the other hand, one of the banner ad’s strengths is that it still functions like a “Gas, Food, Lodging” sign.

It’s another exposure to your message. Like a billboard or bus stop signage or a table tent. It’s a quick hit, a piece of a larger media mix, keeping your brand, product or service top of mind.

Another change in the world of banner ads is fraud.

Ad Age recently ran an article entitled “Kraft Says It Rejects 75% to 85% of Digital Ad Impressions Due to Quality Concerns.” A Kraft spokesperson said the 75 to 85 percent that are rejected are considered “fraudulent, unsafe or non-viewable or unknown.”

Today, bots account for an increasing percentage of impressions. Traffic fraud is serious business and impacts all websites, including ag media.

So What’s Next?

1. Better measurements

If we can’t count on click-through rates, how can we measure banner ads?

A number of companies now offer ways of gathering more meaningful metrics. If you’d like to know more, we’d be delighted to share that information with you.

2. Better banner ads

The Internet Advertising Bureau identifies “Rising Stars” which outperform traditional banner ads.

They’re typically more intrusive, immersive or entertaining. We work with our media partners to come up with better options for our clients. And we work with clients to create rich media or otherwise engaging experiences within their banner ads.

3. Alternatives

Manjoo says reaching customers on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter is a better option.

But Chris Gayomali of Fast Company says research shows brands are wasting their time and money on Facebook and Twitter.

Another option is Native advertising. It delivers sponsored content side-by-side with editorial content on the site. You’ll see this at Buzzfeed, Forbes and The Atlantic.

Native advertising is hot right now. But some folks are concerned about the inevitable blurring of the line between advertising and content in this scenario.

In a recent clip from his HBO show, comic John Oliver makes a strong, if not hilarious, case against native advertising (warning: explicit language).

Not to be cynical, but many of us in marketing know that those lines between advertising and content have always been blurry. Understanding that 50 percent of news is PR-driven has already made us question the integrity of content.

What Would Captain Kirk Do?

It’s hard to believe we don’t have more options. We can send rockets to Mars, find the Higgs boson and create virtual reality. But we can’t find better ways to advertise online?

Last week I attended a UX Futures Summit, an online conference about the future of user experience on the web.

(Note: There’s an actual discipline within web development called User Experience. If only every product or service incorporated that point of view!)

One of the presenters, Nathan Shedroff, discussed information from the new book he co-authored with Christopher Noessel, Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction.

Shedroff is a design and user experience expert, and chair of the California College of the Arts MBA in Design Strategy. He demonstrates how we can get inspiration, and even direction, for creating new designs, products, interfaces and experiences, from science fiction.

He shared an anecdote about flip phones. The ones that most closely resembled the Star Trek “Communicator” were more successful than those that opened in other ways.

Were our expectations shaped by Star Trek? Did Star Trek create an excellent cell phone user experience long before cell phone designers?

And companies have been trying to create that airborne multi-touch interface from Minority Report for years now.

Shedroff and Noessels’ Sci-Fi Interfaces website includes the pair’s thinking on possibilities linked to a wide variety of sci-fi films.

It’s a great way to get a new perspective.

And we might want to start with the near future. As mobile use skyrockets, we need to rethink online advertising anyway. Technology will force us to change.

And so we need to do more than prepare for whatever’s next.

We need to create whatever’s next.

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