Blind Spot: Ensuring the Future of Effective Digital Advertising

Millions of dollars are wasted annually as a significant portion of online ad inventory goes unseen by consumers. Even though you may not be familiar with “banner blindness,” you’re more than likely experiencing it. If you’re reading this in a browser on your laptop, you probably scrolled past the banner ad at the top of this page, or the large ad placement on the right side of the screen, without noticing it. Banner blindness is unavoidable in the online ad industry. However, a better understanding of how user interface (UI) design can increase ad visibility could provide welcome solutions for frustrated advertisers, and the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) should be leading the charge.

Along with the well-documented creative guidelines for digital advertising units, the IAB should actively promote best practices for improving ad unit placement and visibility to reduce the impact of banner blindness. The human brain is very good at recognizing patterns. This is what helped us survive in prehistoric times as hunter-gatherers. This same instinct helps us recognize IAB standard ad sizes and automatically ignore them in our hunt for the content we want. A large body of usability research has been done in the nearly 20 years since banner ads were introduced. Eye-tracking research in particular has established widely accepted conventions for how users scan screens to find information. The “F-Pattern,” identified by Jakob Nielsen – where traditional Western viewers scan a page from left-to-right, then down and left-to-right again once they find interesting content – is an example of one such convention. Another is the “Gutenberg rule,” which prioritizes the lower right corner of any screen as the “terminal area” where most users’ eyes come to rest after scanning a page. This is the reason most slide-out messaging appears in the lower right corner of the screen on browser-based websites. The IAB needs to promote usability conventions such as these, together with its guidelines as best practices that improve ad performance and support its core objective of “shar(ing) best practices that foster industry-wide growth.” 

In recent years the explosion in retargeting is an indication that marketers are big believers in tracking site visitors’ behavior as they browse the Web. The task of understanding site visitors’ typical scanning patterns and designing user experiences that increase visibility is usually left to designers and UI experts. This shouldn’t be the case. Creating a screen layout that gives ads the best chance of generating traffic should be the concern of every marketer who makes a living from pay-per-click (PPC) advertising. Providing best practices for marketers based on the usability research and accepted conventions will create a greater understanding of how a well-designed user interface can enhance views and click-through rates (CTRs) for online advertising content.

In an open letter sent to agency executives after last year’s Digital Content NewFronts, IAB president Randall Rothenberg made an impassioned request to “work together to venerate the big ideas and great creatives behind them, as we have done in other media, and also to find standards and processes that will enable the best advertising to flourish in digital environments.” Rothenberg acknowledges problems with banner blindness – “we face a clutter crisis.” His solution? “Be as creative as possible.” I couldn’t agree more. But what if, in this case, less really is more? The IAB may be focused on the wrong type of creativity. What if instead of more over-sized, animated, synchronized, re-targeting, road blocking units the creativity that’s called for is technical creativity? If the traction of native advertising (200 percent more user gaze than ads placed in traditional ad locations according to this infographic from Infolinks) provides evidence that sponsored content has higher CTRs than traditional banners, why isn’t banner technology creating more innovative ways to blend into the page styling with dynamic coloring, typefaces, and placements that match the screens that contain them? If only a small percentage of Internet users (8 percent) account for the majority of ad clicks (85 percent), why not serve fewer ads with more relevance to the other 92 percent?


Money is wasted every day on ad placements that are never seen by the consumers they’re intended to target. Another truism from Rothenberg’s letter – that unlike native advertising “scale economics dictate that much…creative advertising will have to cross sites and cross screens” – means generating more awareness of the problem of banner blindness, as well as best practices for combating it should be a top priority of the IAB, in order for them to remain a champion for the industry.

Homepage image via Shutterstock.

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