Downsizing: Small Ads, Big Results

Everywhere you look, consumer products are getting smaller. From the Lilliputian Mini Cooper to Nokia’s new lipstick-sized phone and the 0.78-ounce iPod Shuffle, it seems our society is slowly making the shift from “bigger is better” to “less is more.”

Don’t get me wrong; there are still plenty of people who covet Whoppers and SUVs. But many have also come to appreciate the value that more diminutive products can provide.

You’d think the online space would be no exception, but this trend has hardly translated where online advertising is concerned. Marketers’ objectives continue to be to occupy as much site space as possible. From skyscrapers to full-screen ads (some sites even still offer wallpaper placements), marketers openly subscribe to the theory that larger ads generate better results.

Certainly, there’s data to support this claim. I’ll be the first to agree larger ads have contributed to our industry’s current success, in both performance and increased ad spending. DoubleClick reported last year that the 550 x 480 banner generated an average CTR (define) of 2.35 percent, compared with the standard 468 x 60 banner’s 0.40 percent. Meanwhile, traditional advertisers continue to be drawn to larger formats that allow them to deliver the rich and interactive creative they’re accustomed to using offline.

Tack on the belief larger ads help cut through clutter to garner more user attention (an important point where branding is concerned), and it’s no surprise bigger ads are more popular than ever. DoubleClick’s Q3 2004 ad-serving report reveals “larger units have become new standards,” with leaderboards, skyscrapers, and large rectangles following closely behind the still-popular 468 x 60 banner.

Will the reign of large formats last? Internet users are clearly overwhelmed. Studies show consumers consider site clutter, and the standard ad units that contribute to it, very annoying, even though they continue to click. If they feel bombarded by advertising now, imagine what a few more years of quarter- and half-page ads could do.

Perhaps it’s time to take a cue from the offline world and bring back the smaller, less offensive ads we left behind. Doing so both appeases our audiences and forces us to focus on substance and placement, as we should.

It certainly seems to work for paid search advertisers. Marketers find continued success in the tiny text ads, even though they’re often limited to pitching their products or reinforcing their brands in a dozen words or less. The result is a relevant, no-nonsense message consumers can appreciate, very similar to the text links of days past. The latter were popularized by news and entertainment portals and focused on site and ad content. The ads often appeared below article headlines and within site copy.

Even small display ads, like the once-popular buttons, may stand a good chance of delivering results when properly placed without alienating consumers. Consider a report compiled by The Poynter Institute, the Estlow Center for Journalism and New Media, and Eyetools. Called “Eyetrack III,” the study measures users’ eye fixations on various site pages to determine the effectiveness of ad placements and units. One finding is “size isn’t always the dominant factor in Web ad performance.”

Ads that are inserted into articles and blend with their surroundings, for example, are more effective than those relegated to standard placements, which contrast with a site’s colors and style. The study also notes though larger ads were seen before smaller ones, they weren’t viewed for a longer period.

It may not be a popular suggestion, or one site publishers are willing to support. But if we intend to keep online audiences happy, we might consider downsizing at least a portion of our ads. We may well find that when used correctly, smaller units can deliver big results.

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