Ad Formats, A Change Is Gonna Come

Last year marked the introduction of numerous new ad units from publishers and technology vendors eager to improve online advertising for consumers and their clients. Every fresh option is built with profitability in mind, of course, but there’s more to it than that. Typically, such trailblazers share four common goals: to improve the user experience, to provide brands with the ability to produce more engaging and more valuable ads, to make metrics make sense, and to draw more brand advertising dollars to the Web.

They are goals shared by another party with a vested interest in online ad units: the IAB, the organization that for years has been analyzing the state of the marketplace on an annual basis to determine which ad units are worthy of inclusion in its Ad Unit Guidelines. In 2009, something changed. The IAB formed the “Reimagining Interactive Advertising” initiative to include the input of agency leaders in addition to creative agencies and publishers. In other words, to leverage the wisdom of the crowd.

“I have an eight year old daughter and I tell her two things for her safety,” says Peter Minnium, the leader of the Reimagining Interactive Advertising Taskforce. “Don’t talk to strangers, and don’t click on banner ads, because bad things can potentially happen.” Minnium says that rich media is the key to changing the space, but 95 percent of display ads served are “dirt poor” in functionality and appeal. The Taskforce’s research found that 11 of the 18 IAB standard ad units in rotation last year weren’t getting enough usage to warrant their recommendation to digital marketers. These were promptly de-listed, leaving seven units that represented over 80 percent of impressions online. But that wasn’t where the IAB’s initiative stopped.

Enter “Rising Stars,” the IAB’s contest to source new, richer ads and introduce them to brand marketers. In the fall, the organization invited advertisers and publishers to nominate their new units to be judged by media and ad op executives based on five criteria: branding, user experience, functionality, page integration, and adoption. The winning formats will be announced in February and will be evaluated in market over the course of 2011. By the end of the year, advertisers will be presented with a new series of IAB standards units.

If response to the contest is any indication, brand marketers will soon have some very interesting options at their disposal. There were over 36 submissions, including AOL’s provocative Project Devil and the AOL-acquired Pictela. “These will differ dramatically from standards of the past,” says Minnium. “For the first time they will have standard rich media functionality.”

Media planners and buyers often have a tough job convincing their brand marketer clients of the value of certain online ads. Historically, branding has been synonymous with rich media, particularly those big, glossy units that best mimic the TV or print experience. The units, however, haven’t always met expectations. The IAB’s efforts to standardize units that are more “brand-friendly” – however vague that term may be – is a noble one, and one that stands to motivate big changes industry-wide. Years later, we’re all still struggling with determining what’s best for which type of campaign, and it isn’t as though we’re dealing in a static space. The IAB can’t know what the industry will need five years down the line, but right now, in 2011, we’d benefit from richer, more efficient units.

When the IAB sets a standard, the industry listens, and a few dozen players think they have a pitch so radical it warrants being heard. This has the makings of a very interesting year.

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