The display ad has been derided for its low click-through rates. Factors working against this venerable advertising form include "blindness" on the part of visitors, the tendency of marketers to use them to shout at visitors, and the fact that the ads are frequently not relevant to the content they're displayed alongside.
To battle these fundamental disadvantages, advertisers have made their banner ads flashier, using animation and even video to puncture the veil of surfer blindness.
As we discovered in documenting the evolutionary patterns of display advertising, the banner ad can be more effective if it's targeted correctly, and if surfers convert after they click.
There are those, however, who believe that the very concept of the banner ad should be rethought. One direction that advertisers are taking is to make the ad provide a service, a kind of digital concierge ready to help consumers find and purchase products. After all, the hotel concierge wields great power with local businesses because he can send hotel guests their way. Can display ads wield such power?
How May I Help You?
Imagine it's a few weeks before Father's Day. You are a wife with a little time to kill, and are surfing some of your favorite sites. Father's Day is at the back of your mind, when your eye is drawn to a 300x250 ad showing you a selection of men's slacks. "Stylish Gifts for Fathers Day," extols the headline.
But this one is different. It has scroll buttons. It's clear that you can scan through an assortment of options without leaving the page you're on. It may even allow you to select those that interest you before you're brought to a page with more details.
You may not find anything of interest, but you've probably spent considerable time interacting with the brand.
The concept sounds good, doesn't it?
These ads test well, according to Jonathan Mendez of Ramp Digital and the "Optimize and Prophesize" blog. Mendez is the type that is always looking for the next percentage; incremental increases in click-through rates and steady increases in conversions.
With this orientation, Mendez tends to find himself well ahead of the adoption curve, and his interest in what he has called "adplications" is no exception. It seems that there aren't a lot of advertisers using these kinds of ads yet. There are some reasons for this.
It Takes More Than a Desk in the Lobby
There are some challenges to creating a digital concierge. First of all, the creative is no longer a GIF file and a Flash animation. It is an application. As such, it needs to accept interaction from a visitor and react appropriately. A new skill set is required on the team.
For product selection applications, like the one envisioned above, the ad may need to access the advertiser's product database. This means that an effort on the part of the information technology department would be required. Marketers know that IT has killed more promising campaigns than budget cutters.
Given the investment in development resources and back-end infrastructure, concierge ads don't lend themselves well to typical campaign-oriented advertising, in which ads run for a few weeks and then retire.
The ad-as-a-service also upsets the analytics apple cart. How do you measure interaction when it's happening on someone else's site? If there's not a click, how do you know that the ad is working? How do you compare the performance of an adplication to a standard ad?
For a sales-oriented campaign, revenue is the ultimate metric. Things get a little murkier when you're doing awareness or brand advertising. Brand marketers may find themselves going hat-in-hand to IT, asking if they can pull data from the ad when surfers interact with it, to gather analytics.
What Service Could You Provide?
The good news is that there's a spectrum of solutions, many requiring less technical gear-turning. Advertisers can provide a variety of complementary services that can move the surfer closer to engaging and buying.
Ad as search page: One of the simplest approaches is to simply put a category search field in your ad. The surfer enters keywords and is taken to your site's search results page. They could alternatively be taken to a comparison shopping age for a category. This approach is simple, uses existing site resources, and provides a wealth of keyword research.
Ad as first step: The ad can be the first step in a sign-up process. The most basic example of this is the ubiquitous mortgage broker ads that ask you to click on your state. The information is passed to the landing page, and loan rates for your state are displayed. Dancing aliens aside, these ads have generated significant revenue for that industry.
A university could post an ad prompting you to enter a field of study that interests you. The subsequent landing page would then offer targeted degrees and courses on that topic offered by the school.
A pet supplies company might present an ad that asks your pet's name. The data may not be material to the purchase process, but offers some real personalization opportunities on the site. There's clearly ample room for advertisers to get creative in this space.
Ad as entertainer: Mendez pointed me to an ad on Britain's "The Guardian" promoting the new movie, "Pirate Radio." The 300x250 ad expands out into a full video player. The visitor can view the trailer, TV spots, and other video content, all without leaving the page. Of course, there's a link to purchase tickets.
PointRoll, the company behind the adplication, is even experimenting with ads that take over the entire page. This approach obviously has implications for publishers, who may not want to see their content usurped by the well-meaning digital concierge. However, publishers may be able to charge premium rates for such ads.
Ad as landing page: Mendez sees the ultimate evolution of the adplication as having a landing page or product catalog move out into the ad unit. The click becomes largely irrelevant, but the power of an ad to provide "add to cart" functionality is enticing. What advertiser wouldn't want customers purchasing right in an ad?
While they require more work and a longer term commitment, ad-as-a-service ads hold the promise of engaging a prospect at the initial point of contact. As they become more and more common, it isn't hard to imagine that there will be vendors that step up to ease the IT burden for advertisers. It makes sense for them to start experimenting with the digital concierge to rise above the noise that aggressive marketing is inevitably creating.
Send Me Your Samples
It's been difficult to find examples of adplications in the wild. Send me your example and let me know how it has performed for your business. Drop me a note here.
Thanks to Paul Knegten of Dapper.net for introducing me to Jonathan Mendez.
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With 15 years of online marketing experience, Brian has designed the digital strategy and marketing infrastructure for a number of businesses, including his own technology consulting company, Conversion Sciences. He built his company to transform the Internet from a giant digital-brochure stand to a place where people find the answers they seek. His clients use online strategies to engage their visitors and grow their businesses. Brian has created a series of Web strategy workshops and authors the Conversion Scientist blog. Brian works from Austin, Texas, a place where life and the Internet are hopelessly intertwined.
March 19, 2014