Tale of a New Ad Unit’s Debut

Earlier this year, I wrote about working with site publishers to create new online advertising placements that overcome obstacles like limited space. Naturally, this isn’t something undertaken by media buyers alone. Publishers do their part, improving their sites with new and better placements for advertisers.

In late April of this year, mega-news sites NYTimes.com and Boston.com (both owned by New York Times Digital) launched a new type of advertising unit, the half-page ad. At the time, it was the first such placement. It’s since been adopted by CBS MarketWatch.com and Forbes.com, among others.

Publisher motivation for introducing new ad placements is virtually always the same: to offer something other sites can’t, and consequently to generate increased ad revenue. The type of placement sites introduce can vary greatly and depend on such factors as page layout, the nature of the site’s content, and the audience. In NYTimes.com’s case, the new format was intended to give advertisers a more prominent online presence than afforded by standard ad units.

As New York Times Digital saw it, it was a simple matter of showcasing advertisers in a superior way, one not possible on comparable news sites. “We wanted to take advantage of the pristine environment present on NYTimes.com,” says Jason Krebs, VP of advertising sales.

The half-page ads (an example can be seen here) are 336 x 800 pixels. They can be animated or developed in Flash. They appear vertically, providing advertisers with a large skyscraper-style area within which to display their message. When developing a new ad format or placement, the user’s mindset must be considered. How will that placement alter user experience on the site? Given NYTimes.com’s audience is exclusively interested in gathering information, the placement was designed to shift whole blocks of text to the left, as opposed to directly inserted into an article. Visitors don’t find the ads intrusive, claims Krebs, as these placements “don’t chop the article in half, and don’t interfere with the content.”

Krebs points to another advantage of half-page ads: size. According to industry research, larger ad units tend to be more effective, produce increased view-through rates (indicating a user has visited the brand’s site within 30 days of viewing an ad), and higher click-through rates. Advertisers have shown increased interest in larger placements for some time now; DoubleClick reported last year skyscrapers were the second most popular ad unit next to the standard 468 x 60 banner, and use of large rectangle placements grew 300 percent in 2002.

Half-page ads seem to be following in the footsteps of other large-units. IBM, FedEx, British Airways, Buick and Exxon Mobil are some of the major advertisers that have employed them to date.

One factor motivating interest, as well as promoting advertiser satisfaction, is surely the targeting capabilities associated with the ad as it’s served on NYTimes.com. The site boasts a dynamic page service, meaning content layout and advertising can appear differently to different users, based on internal targeting specifications. Advertisers employing the half-page ad unit can indicate exactly which user groups they wish to reach, match those criteria to desired content, and ads are displayed accordingly. Every NYTimes.com user goes through a registration process to access the free content, so targeting can be done based on profile data, article themes, and so on.

Perhaps the best indicator of the half-page unit’s success on NYTimes.com is the elevated renewal rate. Krebs assesses renewal rates for half-page ad campaigns as consistently in the high double-digits. Now that the ads have been on the market for several months, competing with conventional banners and enticing rich media placements, this is proof positive in Krebs’ mind that advertisers are thrilled with what the placement can do. Granted, the unit is priced higher than other formats in similar NYTimes.com sections (rates depend on section placement and targeting requirements). But Krebs asserts he often gets advertiser requests for the units, adding “advertisers have been very satisfied with the results.”

NYTimes.com supports the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) Universal Ad Package. While its half-page ad is not yet an IAB accepted format, the site believes it has what it takes to be approved.

Are you one of the advertisers who have tested half-page ads? Share your results with me for a future column.

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