You really have to pity the text link.
In a world of visually compelling ad placements, such as banners, skyscrapers, and interstitials -- which are increasingly filled with dramatic formats such as video and Flash -- the lowly text link has had a heck of a time getting noticed. To many advertisers, it's a second-rate placement saddled with a multitude of limitations.
True, a few lines of text and a linking URL don't provide much room for creativity. HTML and other rich media formats allow advertisers to enhance their ad messages with images and engage users with interactivity. Text links, on the other hand, depend on copy alone. To complicate things further, they're hampered by stringent character restrictions that can leave even the most inventive copywriter pulling out her hair.
For all of their shortcomings, text links actually have a lot going for them. For one thing, they're not at all offensive -- a characteristic that's particularly valuable these days. They'll surely never be accused of being "annoying," as vokens and full-screen ads often are, and they won't ever be called "intrusive" like pop-ups. They're so unobtrusive, in fact, they're often mistaken for content, which (contrary to common logic) can actually be advantageous. Subtly disguised ad placements, such as advertorials and content integration sponsorships, regularly garner more consumer interest than blatant ad messages, which are so familiar to Internet users they are often subconsciously disregarded. Text links, especially those incorporated into site menu bars or created to mimic search engine results, stand to attract qualified visitors who are genuinely interested in the subject matter the ad message promotes.
Text links are also extremely inexpensive, frequently sold on a cost-per-click or flat-fee basis. They're generally hard-coded into the site, so the amount of exposure the ad will receive is directly related to the amount of traffic the pages experience. Buyers can predict their level of exposure in advance by analyzing traffic logs from comparable months. Often, the number of impressions they end up receiving is staggering, especially when you consider the minimal flat fee.
In theory, these ads should be outperforming many of the more conventional ad formats we regularly employ. In a testament to the neglect from which text links suffer, industry statistics on the effectiveness of these little ads are nearly impossible to come by. Though research on every other ad format under the sun is always readily available to assist media buyers in the decision-making process, we're on our own when considering text links. But as I always say, the best way to measure the value of an ad is to test it yourself.
Our agency recently did just that, incorporating various types of text links into an online ad campaign for a leading Canadian Internet-based travel provider. We used text ads framed by the advertiser's logo, straight text links with a maximum of 30 characters, and menu links designed to impersonate the site's content directory, spreading these out over newspaper sites such as National Post, as well as through news and information portals such as Sympatico and Canada.com.
The menu text link, which was positioned in one portal's "Shop Online" box, generated the highest click-through rate with an average of 6.5 percent. The text ad on the same site averaged a respectable 0.94 percent click-through (to say nothing of the brand awareness produced by the accompanying logo). The remaining ads consistently produced above-average click rates, ranging from 0.3 to 0.7 percent.
With results like these, why is the text link still the black sheep of the online advertising family?
For starters, it's not sexy. Text links don't impress, they don't astonish, and they certainly don't spawn any word-of-mouth promotion. But just because text links can't boast any of these attributes doesn't make them worthless; they're just not designed to be primary placements. Text links work best when they're used to supplement your buys -- to drive that extra bit of traffic your client is looking for and to bring up your overall campaign click rate. Their mere presence can mean the difference between a mediocre campaign and a triumphant online advertising foray.
I think it's high time we all give text links a chance. Work them into your next ad campaign in conjunction with your standard ad formats. Test out copy variations and placement options until you find the right combination for your client. These placements are inexpensive enough that a test buy is an easy sell, and if it works you've got yourself an effective ad option easily integrated into future campaigns. You may even do your part to boost this forgotten placement to the status it deserves.
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Tessa Wegert is an interactive media strategist with Enlighten, one of the first full-service digital marketing strategy and services agencies, serving such brands as Bioré, Bratz, Food Network, illy, Hunter Douglas, Jergens, and Olympic Paints and Stains. An industry veteran, Tessa has worked in online media buying and planning, marketing, and online copywriting since 1999. She is an active freelance writer specializing in interactive marketing who has contributed to U.S. and Canadian publications, including "USA Weekend Magazine," "Marketing Magazine," "The Globe and Mail," and "The Montreal Gazette." She is frequently quoted as an industry expert and speaks regularly at industry conferences and events.
March 19, 2014