In Defense of the Banner

In 1996, to help tame the burgeoning but chaotic online advertising industry, the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) began promoting online advertising banner standards. The standards have allowed ad agencies, ad servers, and publishers to make the buying, selling, and serving of advertising space more efficient.

One of the most ubiquitous among the IAB standard formats is the 468 x 60 ad banner. When most people refer to banners, this is the format they usually mean.

For years the ad banner has been under attack.

It is a lightning rod for criticism of all online advertising. Lately, ever since it has become fashionable in the popular media to denigrate Internet business in general and online advertising in particular, the ad banner has come to signify a medium without impact.

But attacking the banner isn’t new. Almost two years ago, i-traffic, the media planning and buying firm now part of AGENCY.COM, launched www.bannerssuck.com with much fanfare at a Jupiter online advertising conference. The site is down now, but the sentiment remains: Online banner ads are a waste of money.

My company measures the branding effectiveness of online advertising, and we regularly publish data that proves critics wrong. But instead of reviewing that evidence, let’s look at why the most common arguments against the ad banner just don’t hold water.

The Attacks

Low click-through rates prove that banners don’t work. This column has debunked that argument many times before. First of all, the volume of advertising has increased so much that if the early click-through averages were sustained, users wouldn’t be doing anything but clicking on ads. Second, banners can have a powerful, quantifiable branding effect that is independent of click-through.

The Internet isn’t an evocative medium. True, banner advertisements aren’t 30-second commercials. You can’t do Mean Joe Green drinking Coke or Mikey eating Life cereal in 28,080 pixels. But you can evoke these stories in a properly integrated campaign. Clear, simple messages can be memorable — and they can make an impact on consumers.

People don’t see banner ads. This argument usually stems from the highly subjective assertion “I don’t look at banners.” The argument gets even more far-fetched when the claim is made that Internet users have somehow learned to cognitively block out anything banner-shaped. The evidence, however, contradicts those views. In May 2000 the Poynter Institute, a respected school for journalists, released the results of an eye-tracking study designed to determine how people read news on the Web. One of the findings: 45 percent of subjects looked directly at banner ads when reading the news online, and they focused on the banners for an average of about a second.

People on the Internet are goal-oriented. The proponents of a scaled-down, efficient online experience — an Internet world devoid of flash and Flash, a place that’s not a marketplace but a card catalog — often make the argument that users have specific online goals and anything getting in their way is useless and inappropriate. Hence, they argue, online advertising is extraneous and ignored. But people driving down the highway are goal-oriented, too. That doesn’t mean that billboard advertising doesn’t work. Good online advertising integrates into the user experience and offers relevant, compelling information just as any other form of advertising does.

I don’t remember banner ads. Maybe you don’t remember many of the banner advertisements that you see. But can you remember the radio commercials you heard on your commute this morning? Probably not — but no one’s promoting a site called www.radioadssuck.com. The reason? Advertising’s effect is subtle. It is meant to trigger a response at the right time (usually the point of purchase); it is not meant to stay in the forefront of your mind all day long.

Banner ads are never relevant. People rightfully complain when they are duped by “tricky” banners or when they notice that the ads they get are poorly targeted, offensive, or repetitive. We need to invest in making online advertising better, whatever its format. But this is not a reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The Future

The fact is that 468 x 60 ad banners are slowly being phased out. Recently CNET announced a number of new, more intrusive advertising formats that are better integrated into content. “Skyscraper” units, like the one to the right of this column, are becoming more common. And the increasingly active and engaged IAB is working to develop new standards that will help usher in a new wave of creativity.

We should welcome these new formats as a part of the evolving, and improving, landscape of online advertising. But millions of dollars are still being spent on the classic 468 x 60 format. If those banners are part of a strategically sound and well-executed plan, that’s money well spent.

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