The End Of Online Advertising Standards

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Do online advertising standards work? Is there a real point to them?

The online and interactive advertising industry will have you believe that this is the only way to get both advertisers and publishers on the same page (so to speak) when it comes to delivering the ultimate user experience, but the truth of the matter is that having standards for banner ads (and even rich media ads) is not even beginning to scratch the surface of what’s needed if we really feel we need standards around online advertising.

There’s just too much going on.

Banners, rich media, alternate creative ideas for spaces that used to be held for banners (check out VideoEgg), email marketing, affiliate marketing, search engine marketing, Social Media marketing, audio ads for Podcasts and it just keeps going on and on. Beyond that, for each and every new platform also comes talks, discussions and strategies around what the advertising models will look like. Rumours abound that Twitter is soon to announce something about how they plan to monetize their platform, and Apple just announced their iAd platform the other day in hopes of helping app developers create a stronger revenue stream through advertising.

It just keeps getting crazier and crazier.

Just look at how many different mobile devices are in market. Think about the many different types of mobile sites. Now, help me figure out how you create any semblance of what should be considered standards for that one advertising platform? On top of that, what happens if publishers and advertisers don’t adhere to these standards? What do we do with them?

How can we make this work?

That’s the really tough question. Because, we’re not just talking about TV ads, where most of us understand the length, code of ethics and what you can (and can’t) do with the media. This is everything from text, audio, video and images to platforms owned by some of the biggest media companies in the world to a one-person shop in a random basement. On top of that, as long as we focus solely on only a few of the channels and types of advertising, what does that say about the ones we’re not creating standards for? Are they too new? Do we not care about them? Are they less relevant?

Something has to give.

If we’re going to create online advertising standards, we’re going to have to look at this from a global perspective (not just by country or by individual type of online media). We need to figure out why we need these standards and we’re going to need to define what happens to those who don’t follow the standards.

Afterall, what the point in standards if nobody has to follow them and they don’t apply to every aspect of advertising in the digital channels?


  1. Mitch – doesn’t it come down to pricing? How do you decide how much one ad is worth vs another? And if this pricing system is broken, then which one works?

  2. I don’t think it’s pricing at all. That’s the one thing that will never be standardized. Price is based on value. Value of the ad space is defined by the quality of the target audience and scarcity (quantity) of the position/pace along with the overall perceived value of the specific media property.
    When we talk about standards we’re talking about size (of both the space and the file size) as well as positioning, how many ads per page, etc…

  3. I agree that it’s daunting, but standards are needed if only to afford a modicum of protection to the consumer. The IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau) is the de jure ruling body. It doesn’t enforce the standards it spends months – much of that time donated by publishers, advertisers, and agencies – developing; however, all that work means that leading online web site publishers or operators are NOT giving free rein to their knee-jerk, damn the torpoedoes, ads-over-content instincts. Simple standards like “audio must be viewer initiated” are followed by a surprisingly large number of advertisers, and that’s likely because of the awareness generated by the IAB and its members.
    It’s true that users will regulate some of this by voting with their mouse – but they can lose out on great content or services due to misguided use of ads. And, web site operators who don’t pay attention to or don’t follow through on their bounce rates may never understand that users hate what they’ve done with ads on their site – so they can lose out too.
    Standards reduce that responsibility and potential loss of experience considerably. Should we need them? I’d like to say no, we shouldn’t. But, human nature being what it is… it’s like the old saying “Locks keep honest people honest.”

  4. Hi Mitch,
    Interesting post. I have been looking at the web and particularly social media through the lens of natural selection and living ecosystems for years now. What i have seen is that standards to seemingly naturally occur after awhile and those things that do not conform to the natural standards tend to die on the vine.
    A couple factors at play here in my mind would be:
    – Change is driven by the consumer online far more than it is by companies. Therefore is an ad or site “abuses” the consumer experience, it will lose popularity and diminish. This happens naturally.
    – Constant, rapid evolution of the medium. This is really the big defining factor over traditional media channels which stayed virtually static (TV, radio, magazine, etc). There is no control over what is created and by who and no way to hold anyone really accountable.
    I mean, if we try to enforce standards, and i under the rationale for doing so, is it waste of time right now? Can we see standards that have already naturally occurred or are slowly evolving that we can guide or steer?
    Could the answer be a more organic solution something like the wiki model of mass collaborative contribution and constant refinement to create an acceptable set of open standards? Maybe…
    Your post made me think though that the evolution of this medium (online) is one that is really still in its infancy and is rapidly evolving without one defining plan for what it will be when it grows up. It is the child of a billion parents. That makes any kind of standardization difficult.
    Food for thought and enjoyed the post. Thanks!
    Jeff – Sensei

  5. I am not quite sure what such standards would deliver, to whom, and for what end purpose.
    Is the primary point of these standards to reduce or at least make estimable the development cost for people who are advertising, so that for instance you don’t have to do separate creative for each of 25 platforms that all have different sizing, content and technology requirements?
    It seems to me that one of the huge challenges of the next few years will be to strategically choose platforms, amount of investment in each from a technology, content creation and social engagement perspective, to achieve end business goals, given the continuing “fragmentation of everything.” I wonder whether any formal standardization effort could hope to keep up with the rate of change, let alone be ahead enough to guide business decisions.
    Is the primary point to avoid absurd claims and unethical behavior? In this case it seems that the content validity standards could readily be adapted from existing standards for print, web and broadcast media (although I’m not sure I see how to do effective enforcement in in a global marketplace at web scale.)
    Maybe by narrowing or clarifying the goals to be achieved by standards it might be easier to see whether they are needed, what they might involve and how the ecosystem might be induced to adopt them.
    Given the technology and social ecosystem change rate, maybe the most important things to address are ethics and general content standards-along the lines of the US FTC blogger guidelines extensions, rather than to attempt anything that is tied to a particular technology?
    Thanks for a thought provoking post,
    (another) Joel

  6. Hi Mitch,
    interesting post. I’ve never thought of standards. I have noticed some sort of consistency. Everything that I’m writing is purely from the view of a consumer of online content.
    I would say that anything is allowed as long as it captures my attention. Website owners just really need to figure out who I am (their average visitor). As a consumer of web content (or any content of any sort for that matter) I would say the ads that creatively stick out and offer a service or product I might either use or refer are the winners. Usually those are not the ones squeezed into a norm or box. A TV ad comes to my mind: Miller during 2009 Superbowl. I’ve never had a Miller beer, but I will certainly grab one if I see it in ice cold water at a summer party. Heck I might even buy one. I guess they are the winners because they used creativity to break out of the norm with their 1 second ads (someone might argue though that they did not actually go against any rules and regulations). Everything else is just noise and clutter.
    History has shown though that the Internet has booted all rules out and those (brands) that can captivate me and even keep me wanting more are the winners.

  7. Mitch I always appreciate you drawing out the tough questions. Too me it always comes back to simplicity. The companies that have not been providing quantifiable results and most importantly value or truly remarkable offerings will not be with us in 12 months. We will not tolerate or accept anything less. I think the people and accessibility to share will act as the standards to what we will tolerate or not in the future. Thanks for provoking discussion on this important topic.

  8. Mitch,
    as one of the people who was involved at bring the Canadian Universal Ad Package (1 and 2) through the IAB with the publishers, I would say that ad standards have worked well so far. If you go back to the late 90’s, media plan that by today’s standard would be judged small, required a tech specs sheet that was way too long. For instance the Globe and Mail had a 300 x 250 that was 25K while the Star’s was 18K. It was a mess. Money was being held back to the media space because creative production was inefficient so instead it was easier for marketers to spend on tv instead.
    There was also the problem that the creatives had no idea what to produce until the media plan was done. Again a mess. By having standards the creatives could show the client the three basic sizes and ignore the media plan as it was being created in parallel.
    Ok so it worked in the past, we went from 160 million bucks to 1.6 billion bucks. Now we have an explosion of rich media and social media and mobile. Fine – we have a new problem to solve, but until we define what that problem is, we don’t have to throw the solution of standards at it yet.
    Now one of the commentors noted that the IAB created the standards and doesn’t enforce them. Truth is – we (I am a board member) never intended to enforce them, the standard is a “floor” not a “ceiling”. The direction was to create a standard that publishers and agencies could agree on. Make this size and most publishers will run it. Create something different and then it’s up to the two of you to negotiate on price and specs but don’t expect anyone else to accept it.
    Also the specs are meant to be flexible but not restraining. As time goes on, and with discussion at the IAB board, agency council and publisher council levels, the specs can change.

  9. Standards!
    Nah not a big fan of that! Power lies in my hands, the consumer. We determine ‘value’ on all digital assets not a body that governs how we can transcend this ‘value’.
    This makes online being not like broadcast or traditional mediums.
    Standards are just capitalistic. I prefer my freedom of speech online and that transcends true value. Hence, standards r irrelevant to my context.

  10. A couple of additional thoughts:
    – I’m a huge fan of industry associations (especially the IAB). I too sat on the board of IAB Canada, remain an active member and even push people to join and be active within the organization. They do amazing work.
    – Ad standards did work when there was a big question mark around the industry and how to even produce a creative like a banner ad.
    Now, times have changed. Currently IAB Canada has standards for basic and rich media banner ads, video ads and some additional standards around ad tags, but nothing else (based on what is on the website). So, when you say,” we have a new problem to solve,” that’s where I am nodding my head and saying, “yep, that’s what this post is all about.” My thoughts are that we don’t have this problem that needs to be solved anymore. Publishers and Brands understand that if they do something that threatens the engagement or is annoying to the consumer, the traffic goes away and the brand gets beaten up in the Social Media channels for being so annoying. On top of that, there are two more bigger issues:
    1. It’s a global challenge now, and not one that can be standardized country by country.
    2. The newer channels have ad platforms that are not as obvious as banner ads, so what does that look like, and are Publishers and Brands looking for standards within these many new channels?
    Last point: the IAB in the U.S. offers guidelines and standards for banner ads, email/lead generation, measurement, mobile, social media and a few others.

  11. Hi Mitch,
    Like Chris, I’m also an IAB board member but didn’t much participate in the formulation of our various standards covering basic, rich media and video ads. I totally agree with Chris in that they are a floor – i.e. this allows for life to be easy within advertiser/agency/publisher if you want it to be, but also allow you to bust your chops if you so desire. I at Corus Quebec am very flexible with the standards, I enforce them as a minimum, but encourage going well beyond them.
    Thinking of you post though, I believe we should probably be more agile, faster, in coming to market with new standards for new platforms (mobile, gaming, social…) or should voice our opinions on “self standardizations” (iAds…).
    However I think we should probably more beyond “formats” and “specs” to standardize basic behavior, engagement, user respect online. I too am where you are (or close) with regards to your thoughts on brand engagement and respect of the user.
    I don’t believe that all advertisers, agencies and publishers get it though like you do, or like a few of us do. Most are still out there for the quick win, quick sale, quick buck – old habits die hard.
    Maybe coming up with engagement standards (or best practices would sound better) would contribute to getting more people on board.

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