The Case for Revised Standards

I want to be among the first to stand and clap for CNET’s latest display of innovation in the online advertising arena. I’ve been a gigantic fan of CNET from the day I learned that it kept a group of online ad specialists called the “Online Crusaders” on the payroll to evangelize the medium and educate less-savvy marketers on the benefits of advertising online. I’m not 100 percent sure that the Online Crusaders still exist, but they did back in 1996, and that was a cool thing for the advancement of the industry at the time.

Such innovation and concern for the online ad industry is evident in CNET’s announcement earlier this week that it will be supporting a new Flash-based ad unit and will attempt to standardize it across the industry. In a market where major trade publications are pointing out the need for rich media standards, this is welcome news. After all, an agency can create the coolest whiz-bang technological wonder of an ad, but it doesn’t do any good unless sites will run it.

What’s particularly cool about this announcement is that CNET has taken to heart the fact that it’s not alone in the sector. Rather than try to use its media might to force a standard on the industry, it’s been soliciting feedback and asking other sites and networks to adopt the standard. What CNET has realized is that a standard is no good unless it gets adopted, so it figures that adoption by media properties like The New York Times and Snowball will help move this along. Good thinking.

The original Internet Advertising Bureau/Coalition for Advertising Supported Information and Entertainment (IAB/CASIE) standard sizes for banners were created mainly to reduce the cost and time associated with launching Internet advertising campaigns. The idea was to cut back on the time spent producing campaign ads by asking ad-supported sites to use a standard set of size specs. If everyone used the same sizes, it would be relatively easy for advertisers to develop one set of ads and be able to run them across the Web.

The introduction of the IAB/CASIE standards did the industry a tremendous service. Believe me, I oversaw quite a few prestandard online ad campaigns, and I’m sure that producers were planning to have me assassinated as they resized banners over the course of several weeks. Had the industry not adopted the standards, I’m sure I would have turned up in a roadside ditch somewhere.

At the same time, I’m wondering why the IAB didn’t take things a step further and standardize file size and animation looping. At this point, some publishers like to see an animated GIF banner come in at 10K or less, while some will give you up to 15K (which sometimes makes all the difference in the world to a designer). Some sites will let you loop an animation indefinitely, while others prefer that animation stop after a specified number of loops or length of time. Keeping track of which publishers have which restrictions is a chore in and of itself.

That said, the IAB/CASIE standards haven’t received an overhaul since the day they were enacted. I’m hearing rumblings across the industry that the IAB plans to release revised standards shortly, so I’m not going to close out my column by whining about how out of date these standards are. Instead, I’d like to raise some issues that the IAB is likely poring over as I write this:

  • Rich media complicates things. While CNET should be commended for its contribution to an emerging standard, standardizing Flash is a tough thing to do. While GIF and JPEG compressions don’t change over time, Flash does. As the various versions of Flash achieve different penetration rates among Web surfers, any standard that codifies Flash ads has to evolve almost as quickly as the application itself does. Flash 5 offers database connectivity, and I’m looking forward to leveraging those capabilities in the future; but it’s not likely that the Web advertising community can standardize on Flash 5 until it achieves greater penetration.

  • Skyscraper ads vary tremendously from site to site. Skyscrapers are those wonderful ads that appear down the side of a piece of content on an ad-supported site. Advertisers praise the format for its impact and flexibility. (Sometimes multiple links are allowed.) But no one can seem to agree on a standard size for this ad. Widths vary from 120 to 240 pixels. You could probably standardize the width, but if the IAB decides to include this in a revised standard, it’ll likely get some pushback if it standardizes the length of the ad. I’ve seen skyscrapers as short as 240 pixels, while some monster-sized skyscrapers have pushed 800 pixels or more and sprawl down the page. That’s a lot of variation. Some site publishers are going to prefer the long format if they have the content to support it. Others might not and might want to pursue a shorter format.
  • Rich media complicates things. Did I say that already? Well, I think it deserves reiteration. How does one standardize ad formats that allow for interactivity beyond a click? When you introduce rich media into the standards mix, all of a sudden you find yourself asking about things that never really needed to be addressed when we were dealing with GIF and JPEG banners: What should be the maximum initial load size for a streaming ad? Should the use of sound be restricted? What media players and file types should be supported? With rich media capabilities expanding continually, have we created something that defies standardization altogether?

Yes, standards do save time and money. But before we as an industry decide whether or not to adopt a set of standards, we need to consider the foregoing. Ad standards were devised to make advertising on the Web more cost-effective and to protect the sanity of our production people. The key to any standard for online ads is its effectiveness in allowing advertisers to address the creative standards of multiple publishers with a common set of specs. And if the IAB is, indeed, preparing to update its ad standards, the specs offered up to the industry must address that concern, or they will be doomed to failure.

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