Looking Beyond The Banner Ad

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Banner advertising never had a chance.

And that’s not a cynic of advertising talking, but rather someone who spent the bulk of the early Internet days selling banner advertising and cutting deals. Even during the heyday (before the dot com implosion), the cracks in the pavement were evident. Beyond the standard fare (technological limitations, issues with enforcing standards and so on), my major gripe was that the Internet is a different kind of media channel and platform, and plastering different sizes of boxes all over the content does not create a cohesive customer-centric product. It’s not like a magazine where a page of advertising between reading doesn’t really disrupt the flow, but rather ads some visual candy to the words. It’s not like television where the commercials are used as breaks or ways to build a plot. Online, it tends be just a mess that usually makes the content harder to read and annoys the reader.

It’s also more than one message.

Just head over to your favorite newspaper online. It’s usually a mess of messages – ads, links, small boxes, big boxes, takeovers, etc… There no choice of differentiation for the consumer between reading content and then seeing an ad… it all takes place in one annoying blast. Trying to read text on a page that has things blinking all over the place and at different times/places murders the user experience. Beyond that, in a bid to prove that there are revenues in online advertising publishers do crazy things like stagger one piece of content over multiple pages simply to serve more banner ads and up their impression/revenue potential.

Things have to change. Things are about to change.

Google recently announced an initiative called, Watch This Space, which is looking to re-invent the banner ad (focusing on targeting, creativity and simpler technology to make it work), while Microsoft is also looking to change things up. In a MediaWeek news item published on October 18th, 2010 called, Microsoft’s Everson Looks to Reinvent Display, the company’s CVP of Global Ad Sales, Carolyn Everson, basically said, "banner ads stink."

According to MediaWeek…

"Microsoft is planning to set up a series of meetings with top creative agencies and executives across the industry as part of an Everson-led effort to reinvigorate online creative, and to attract more traditional brands in the process. Everson, who was most recently COO and EVP of U.S. Ad Sales at MTV Networks, wants to sit down with the current generation of Don Draper‘s and spark nothing short of a revolution."

What do you think? Are banner ads are on their last leg? Can that form of advertising work if it is re-invented?


  1. I applaud Google and Microsoft. We need some serious innovation in that space. Banner advertising in its current state is dead. But display advertising in new ways in the digital space is not.

  2. I think that disruptive advertising and the the way it’s currently being shoved down our throats is on it’s last leg (although I was sure it already died). Personally the only places I’m seeing success with any banner ads is on content networks but that’s just used as a way to get traffic from 3rd or 4th ring.
    I can say that I am very interested in seeing what Google’s gonna come up with. I’m pretty sure that Microsoft will be tapping into the social proof side of things with their partnership with facebook which should prove more effective… but if I had to go out on a limb here I’d say yes, the way banners are presented to us are dead.
    What’s your take on it Mitch?

  3. Mitch, you hit the nail on the head when you say, “my major gripe was that the Internet is a different kind of media channel and platform, and plastering different sizes of boxes all over the content does not create a cohesive customer-centric product.”
    Banners themselves in many cases are not the problem, it’s the overall design of the site where banner ads are placed that is often the problem.
    Customer-centric banner advertising will be achieved easier with, as you mention above, “focusing on targeting, creativity and simpler technology to make it work.”
    Even then, if the site the banner ad appears on isn’t customer-centric, the ads won’t be as effective.
    The ads are only one piece of the pie. If all of the pieces – the content, graphics, ads, targeting, etc. – aren’t all in alignment, the ad won’t be as effective.
    Not for nothing, it is kinda funny when you say, “plastering different sizes of boxes all over the content” considering your “Six Pixels of Separation” moniker. As you are well aware, everything online and on-screen is built in little boxes – pixels! ;-D

  4. I’ve seen very nice executions of skins and roadblocks where a brand get integrated in a creative concept that relates to the content of the website. I find myself spending time looking at the overall ‘take-over’ and thinking “wow, well done”.
    Integrated in a ‘concept’, the banner can definitely be interesting. However, I agree that as a standalone, the banner is more annoying then effective.

  5. As long as media companies can sell banner advertising and advertisers buy it, there will be a place for boxes, banners, skyscrapers… Which is a shame. Microsoft and Google know there is more money to be made in this business if they can just re-position display advertising. Remember when banner advertising was re-positioned as interstitials? Boy, those went over well with Internet users.

  6. I think there are (and have been) great ways of doing this (VideoEgg and their platform comes to mind). I have also seen great executions in online advertising. I like the targeting and behavioural capabilities and I love the analytics that this type of advertising pulls.
    I am hopeful about it… and optimistic.

  7. I don’t mind square designs… I mind lots of squares blinking at me that are not relevant 😉
    When we think of online advertising, it’s not hard to marvel at how Google took the pay-per-click model and really made it work for them – which is in alignment to the many points you raised in your comment.

  8. It’s *got* to be the difference between intrusive and engaging. The difference between annoying and having value. I swear, when an intrusive blinking, flying, growing, preventing me from reading the content type ad pops up, I want to swat it away like a mosquito. At it’s worst, it makes me HATE the brand.
    I want communications from brands that make me like the brand.

  9. Banners are the Burma Shave signs of the Internet Age. They were rather amusing once. Now, they’re crude reminders of the limitations of our technologies and imaginations.

  10. Digital is no different than Social Media. Technologies were not developed specifically for advertising, they were communications mediums. Then people figure out ways to give free content in exchange for seeing ads thus assuming (like your magazine and TV analogies), that 1] we want to see ads there 2] the medium in their minds is conducive for advertising. Is this theme of if we just make it better it will work just chasing the dragon? Will I ever have a reason to turn off my Digital Advertising Blocking Software? I already see Ads on Billboards, TV, Email, Print Publications, and when I drive down the street. Am I lacking in advertising to view?

  11. When you say, “Just head over to your favorite newspaper online. It’s usually a mess of messages …” I have to beg to differ. Because my “favorite” online newspapers tone down the advertising mayhem to some extent. Unfortunately, the other 99 percent of online newspapers do not.
    It’s especially frustrating to me because I actually labor in a print-digital newsroom and understand well that these kinds of distractions get between the readers and the content that we’re trying to offer. However, I also understand the economic reality of what my newsroom and all others are dealing with today, so I know most of us aren’t going to change the use of banner ads soon.
    I find this lamentable. Sure, we’re generating revenue with the ads now. But how can it continue if our readership continues to dwindle, turned off by a host of issues? Believe me, we’re not going to attract *** more *** readers by offering *** more *** distractions from our greatest asset — our content. But that’s our operating strategy today, pushed by our increasingly desperate ad department.

  12. Banner ads have 2 things working for them. 1, you can track a number of different things related to them: impressions, clicks, actions, etc. The quality of those impressions can of course be debated, but they’re still trackable. 2, they seem very similar to advertising that has been going on for decades: billboards, magazine ads, commercials, and so on. With those 2 working in their favor, it seems implausible that they will just go away…even if whatever adjustments are made to them prove to be unsuccessful. If on the other hand Google, Microsoft, & other companies find some way to make them more effective, I’m sure there will be a whole new wave of people saying that banner ads are the key to online success.

  13. In the early days of Internet advertising, most people were not aware of when they were viewing content that was sponsored by paid advertising. The most obvious example of this are the Google ads that appear when you search, etc. The general public is much more educated now regarding how things work, so I agree it is time for thing to change. Thanks for the article and for providing a blog with great information.

  14. Mitch, I think banner advertising has been dead for a very long time. My results from early banner advertising (late 90’s) went from bad to worse in a few short years. At best, banner’s should be used for pure branding, getting a logo and marketing statement out there and in to the public mind.
    Bottom Line: Banners are for long term recognition not short term clicks.

  15. I agree. It all depends on the context, for all ads. Most tv ads are just annoying, then comes along one that people jump onto YouTube to look for.
    We need to work on making banner ads more relevant and more creative.

  16. I don’t think consumers need more messaging. I do think that brands and advertisers simply see space that eyeballs as place to put their messaging – whether it’s a urinal, airline bin for security or a magazine.

  17. Which is why we do need brands like AOL, Google and Microsoft to re-think what we can do with these valuable pages to make the advertising fit more, and be more relevant to the consumers. I’d hate to see us live by the, “just because we can, we should” way of doing things.

  18. It’s not just banner ads: you can track – literally – everything online. Banner ads were created when we were going online via dial-up. They deserve a bit of a re-look. I’d also argue (as I did in the Blog post), that we can’t treat the Internet like the other media and just do what we did there in this space. That doesn’t jive with me. Yes, I used the word, “jive”. Can you dig?

  19. I think they can be. I think the branding aspect is hugely relevant, but a banner ad campaign can definitely drive clicks, sign-up and act as a direct response tool or even one for referrals, etc… My point is that it’s an interactive media and should not be held down to one thing (or another).

  20. I think you’re right that online advertising is going to have to take on forms we have not yet imagined. What will happen during this transition? I have noticed a couple of sites that keep their ads to a minimum and advertisers adapt their ads – within branding of course – to the target audience. Because the ads “fit” the space, and because there isn’t a hodge-podge, I find they work. The example I’m thinking of is a financial education site for women. Two financial institutions have banner ads on the site and have picked up on the light (and bright) “banter” tone that is used throughout the site. Perhaps what we have to do is be more selective of where we advertise and build ads that are really tailored to a site’s particular audience. Maybe as tracking gets more sophisticated, this will be a natural progression.

  21. Ha! I dig. You’re right. We took something offline & molded it to fit online. It fits, but not very well. At some point, the smart people figure out that the plastic bag they’ve been using as a liner for something doesn’t hold water as well as they’d like to, so they undertake creating a special mold that really gets the job done. We need that mold that fits the different media better.

  22. I strongly believe banner ads *need* to evolve in order to survive. For one, the presence of annoying flashy banners really influence one’s opinion to visit a website at all, additionally, the wide use of AdBlock plugins for any known browser is a dreaded outcome for their future, especially with the increasing rise of the various alternatives to Explorer.
    The use of banner ads in a way similar to old-style magazines reminds me of brands using social media platforms just as another promotion channel, not able to differentiate their message to make it effective and engaging.
    One question I cannot answer though is *how* banner ads are gonna change. Perhaps platforms like Apple’s iAd are the real future?

  23. The iAd might be a good leading indicator. The banner part drives to a really rich experience (almost a site within the site)… play games, download stuff, video demos, etc… it’s a nice first step. We still need to overcome the annoying up-front part, though.

  24. I do like it when the media integrates with the platform. If you have a brand that cares and a media company that takes the time to find the right spaces for the ad and to customize the app for the platform as well. it can work out great.

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