Cross-Training Your Banners

Big news: Click-through rates suck nowadays. You’re lucky to get one percent of your viewers to turn into clickers. So banner apologists keep saying, “But the other 99 percent is branding!” In reality, you’re lucky to get five percent of the viewers to even look at the ad. Web surfers are so used to tuning out ads that most of the time they wouldn’t notice if you were giving away free cash in that 468 x 60 space.

Why the miserable failure? Because there is too much noise, so users turn back to their comfort zones. There are more sites, more ads per page, more content links per page — more choices than ever before. So users simply tune out what they don’t know. A talented direct mail marketer I used to work with once told me a tried-and-true DM clichi, which has proven to be true even on the Web: Choice depresses demand. The more choices the Web throws at the consumer, the more the consumer resists and turns back to the familiar. It all comes back to too much noise, not enough trust.

Familiarity Breeds Success

I call this phenomenon the “Red Sweater Effect.” Try buying a red sweater online. Do a search; you get back hundreds of options. (Most are irrelevant.) You click on several unknown sites and get poor design, confusing return policies, back-ordered sizes. Finally, you give up and just type in Gap.com. You know how the sweater will fit, how to return it, and what quality and price to expect. The known brand wins out over the noise. The same phenomenon works in a banner environment, as well as in shopping and search scenarios.

“Banners? What banners? But that iMac commercial last night…”

I have heard, in focus groups, various comments on this theme. Users simply ignore everything that is being thrown at them, especially ads. “I never even see those banners. No, I can’t name a single one from the last 30 minutes of surfing.” But you all already know that your banners aren’t getting clicked. The bigger question is, When do they get clicked? What is different about that one percent of successful clickers? Recent focus-group comments were most telling:

  • “I never click on banners. If the site were so great, I would have found it by now” (i.e., through some other means — ads, searching, or friends).

  • “I occasionally click on ads… if it’s a site I know or have seen before on TV.”

That is, she will click on an ad only if it’s not new — it must be a familiar ad, brand, or product. Now this runs counter to a few myths out there about banners. The assumption that banners need to be vigorously rotated and swapped out with new creative weekly plays directly against the consumer’s need for familiarity. The assumption that banners can be a great brand builder is also faulty if users pay attention only to familiar, prebuilt brands.

Forget Acquisition, Forget Branding

What are banners for, if not for customer acquisition or branding? The answer is they work best as a deal-closer, in conjunction with other media. That is, you create familiarity with your brand and product in some other more comfortable medium — print, TV, radio, or press. The consumer then “knows” you. The banner serves as the last little push toward the site. He sees the ad and thinks, “Oh yeah, I remember seeing that commercial last week, but I had forgotten to visit the site — now I’ll click on over and see what’s on the site.” The brand is being built elsewhere, the first steps toward customer acquisition happened elsewhere; the banner is simply the reminder and the mechanism for clicking.

For those large companies with TV, print, and PR budgets, this is good news. It means that you can optimize your banner campaigns with some thorough cross-training: Keep the message, the creative, and the branding just as consistent and familiar as possible. (I can’t really prove this, since no one tracks metrics across media types, but…) I bet if you planned your banners solely to play off of a TV campaign, ignoring all the myths of Web advertising, you would get better rates. Like if you are buying spots on ESPN, place your banners on ESPN.com. Make sure the banner creative plays off the TV spot, matching creative and message, and even throwing in some “as seen on ESPN live!” line. You want to spark that cross-media recognition any way you can.

It also means that you should strive for maximum recognition value and familiarity. You can rotate creative and go for every eye-catching distraction you want, but the best click rates will go to those banners that are consistent, consistent, consistent. It’s not glamorous, multimedia, or fun, but consistency is the golden rule of branding, after all.

The Bad News

The bad news is that rich media, interstitials, and other hat tricks probably won’t help your rates too much. They won’t address the trust issue that killed banner ads. And they will make the noise issue even worse. Rich media tricks may improve click-through rates nominally and temporarily by forcing people to pay attention instead of ignoring the banner shape and by sparking some curiosity or novelty. But both the distraction effect and the curiosity effect are short-term solutions because they don’t address consumers’ core resistance to new messages amid too much information.

The bad news also comes to smaller Internet-dependent companies, which planned on marketing their dot-coms through the Web only. If you don’t have the budget to create widespread familiarity through TV, print, and press, banners may be a waste of your money. Try spending your energy elsewhere: viral marketing, aggressive pursuit of press, and strategic email and active marketing within your existing client base. If those strategies push your brand to some strong recognition quotient, then pursue banners later, after the word has spread.

Just a Link

The key is to stop thinking about banners as a tool for customer acquisition, and completely forget about the branding excuse. Treat banners as what they really are: links. Merely a mechanism for clicking and the final follow-through for a successful campaign carried out elsewhere — press, TV, radio, print, direct mail, and anywhere else people will listen to you.

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