Do We Need More Ad Units?

The PageGrabber, a new ad unit introduced by ad network and ad solutions provider Undertone Networks last week, is a twist on the takeover ad. The site page itself is manipulated into something entirely new.

A demo for the Nintendo DSi XL game system exhibits the home page of a gaming site taking on the look of a newspaper page before turning to reveal a full-screen ad and eventually returning to its original form. In an example using Ford, the page is pulled and stretched until it resembles a road, on which the vehicle is then seen driving. As the unit’s name suggests, advertisers can use it to “grab” the page and transform it into something unexpected – something that reflects and highlights the advertising brand.


The unit is compelling. Media buyers in need of a splashy takeover-type campaign are sure to consider it. Is that reason enough, though, to warrant its existence? With every new unit that joins the fray, one has to wonder: does our industry really need this?

There will be arguments made about this question from either side of the fence. Some will say consumers are overwhelmed by online ads as it is, and the last thing they need is another full-page unit to detract from their content experience. Others will underscore the importance of new units in minimizing banner blindness, and will be quick to remind the naysayers that without these ads consumers wouldn’t even have any content to experience – unless, of course, they’re willing to fork over some monthly cash.

What follows are two points to consider, regardless of which argument you favor.

Bigger Is Better?

The PageGrabber joins a collection of new units introduced over the past year or so, and confirms an ongoing effort on the part of publishers to offer more prominent ads that are (in theory) more likely to secure high response rates for their advertising clients. The trend began in earnest when, in 2009, the Online Publishers Association (OPA) introduced a trio of new, bigger units. The units spawned some very engaging ads, and even attracted the interest of non-OPA members like Yahoo, which began offering the Pushdown unit in response to advertiser demand earlier this year. Its clients, the company said, “wanted to tell a brand story,” and believed that the Pushdown unit would facilitate that.

So there’s a demand for bigger, more noticeable ad units among media buyers. And yet, buyers continue to spend the vast majority of their budgets on comparably miniscule display ads. According to comScore, medium rectangles (18.6 percent), leaderboards (18.3 percent), and buttons (14.7 percent) are the most commonly viewed display ad units. In contrast, the new OPA units account for just 0.1 percent of all impressions.

Granted, the OPA’s units (and the PageGrabber) aren’t exactly a plug-and-play solution; they require more technical work on the part of both publisher and advertiser, the development of custom creative, and, in general, a larger media investment. The fact remains, though, that these units may never overtake more traditional display banners. Bigger may be better in some respects (a better shot at competing with bold site content like video, more room for creativity), but like too much icing on a cake they can also diminish one’s overall enjoyment. In playing devil’s advocate, one might say that new units can be redundant, or worse, promote the application of far too much frosting on an already overly sweet dessert.

Ad Units Have a Shelf Life

So I was recently told by an ad development director at a major online publisher. The statement is an insightful one. All units, he said, are at risk of eventually becoming obsolete if they aren’t repositioned or redesigned. Skyscrapers, for example, were once popular and effective before falling victim to banner blindness, so advertisers reinvented them with rich media like video and better targeting capabilities. Even leaderboards have been relocated on many sites, moving from above the navigation bar to below it in order to become more prominent and draw more user eyeballs.

This is a strong argument in favor of new units. As the once tried-and-true formats grow tiresome to Internet users, or begin to pale in comparison to ever-evolving site design, new units are a necessity that will infuse our industry with new life. The new, more engaging and exciting ad units (and the advertisers who purchase them) are the saviors of the Web, providing consumers with a welcome respite from the banal in what is in essence a value exchange of good content for good advertising; if the consumer must tolerate advertising while online, then by golly, we are going to make it great.

For this reason, the OPA’s units and Undertone Networks’ PageGrabber must be praised. These units allow digital marketers to tell their brand story in an incredibly persuasive way, rivaling (and even surpassing) television to elevate the Internet to superior media status and making it worthy of comparable ad dollars and attention.

What’s the verdict then? Is it a draw? Are new units somehow an indulgence and a necessity, all at once? Leave your comments below for inclusion in a future column, and let the campaign for – or against – new units begin.

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