Did the IAB Go Far Enough?

They’re bigger.

That’s all that many of the major publications covering online advertising were able to get out of the recent announcement by the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) that it had revamped its voluntary guidelines for online ad units. I’m usually fond of criticizing the way the press covers our industry, but in this case I can’t blame anybody but the IAB.

Most of us have been waiting anxiously for the IAB’s announcement. We wanted to hear about the new Flash-based interactive units that CNET has been using to rally the industry. We wanted to know how to implement units like this across multiple sites, as the original IAB guidelines had helped us to do back in 1996. Instead, the really tough part of standardizing any Flash-based ads — the Flash specs themselves — has been left to the sites and advertisers to figure out.

When the press saw the IAB’s release, all they saw was a bunch of new ad-unit sizes. Called “interactive marketing units” or “IMUs,” the specs for these units only contained physical dimensions (e.g., 250 x 250) and bandwidth constraints (e.g., 20K initial load). From a journalist’s perspective, the only fresh fact contained in the release was that these units were larger than the previously standardized units. And that’s the angle that most media focused on when reporting the story.

Of all the press articles I’ve seen concerning the IAB’s announcement, only Business 2.0 dug into the deeper issues of the need for enhanced interactivity, the attempts to attract traditional advertisers to the Web, and the need for the industry to distance itself from click-based tracking.

In an article by Jim Welte, Business 2.0 explored how these new units would affect the industry by interviewing online ad veterans like Rick Boyce of Snowball, Maggie Boyer of Avenue A, and Dave Smith of Mediasmith. Articles like this one are what the industry needs to move past its current softness.

While Business 2.0 was moving past the “bigger is better” issue, other major publications got stuck on it. The Associated Press, Advertising Age, Adweek, InternetNews.com and several other media outlets concentrated more on the increased size of the units than on anything else.

What have we learned from all of this?

First of all, if we’re going to issue standards, they should offer some true guidance — they should give more than physical size and bandwidth constraints. Perhaps the IAB should have at least tackled Flash standardization first and then rolled out specs for other types of ads. This would have rallied the industry around the idea of increased interactivity and the need to get past “click here” animated GIFs.

Second, if increased creativity and interactivity were the true motivations behind the IAB’s revised standards, the release should have reflected that. In the AP story, Richy Glassberg was quoted as saying, “It’s not just bigger. It’s got to be bigger and interactive.” Earlier in the story, however, Allen Weiner from NetRatings said, “This is truly a case where bigger is not better. In fact, I think in a lot of ways, this is going in a different direction than advertising needs to go in. It’s not about the space, but about what goes into that space.”

I think this gets at the heart of the problem with the IAB announcement — too much focus on ad sizes and not enough focus on what could and should be done with the new ad units.

What I think is cool about how the IAB is handling guidelines for the next generation of Internet ads is the announcement that the committee handling the ad guidelines will meet more regularly. I hope that in its coming meetings, the IAB decides to offer up some rich media guidelines to go hand in hand with its recent revisions. More agencies and advertisers will use new technology in their campaigns if doing so becomes more cost-effective. The quickest way to make this more cost-effective is by eliminating the customization necessary for each site on a campaign. Guidelines would help take care of this.

In the end, I’m disappointed with the IAB’s attempts. I think the organization would better serve the industry by attacking the problems mentioned above and summarized below:

  • The lack of interactivity in online ads

  • The need for traditional advertisers to commit to online advertising
  • The need to move to more sophisticated tracking that doesn’t focus on click rate

Only after the industry solves these three problems does it have a shot at regaining its former glory. The IAB should know this and should be addressing it.

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