Waive the Banner!

Did you see today’s announcement from the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB)? It just discovered the optimal ad size unit to generate incredible impact:

Brand recognition: through the roof!
Response rates: killer numbers!
Consumer acceptance: They love it more than TV!
Client usage: Get ready for the big turnaround!

OK, folks, if you haven’t caught on, this column is hitting your mailbox on none other than April Fool’s Day. I couldn’t resist the temptation. Sorry, but there’s no such thing as an optimal ad size that really captivates consumers.

Seriously, have you ever heard a water-cooler conversation in which someone mentioned, “Did you see that online ad?” as people often do about TV spots?

Today my intent is not to randomly bash what we collectively implement. Sure, the industry has rallied to study the issue. The Ad Sizes Task Force deserves a lot of credit for trying to identify the most viable sizes. But look at the intent. The program is designed to make the interactive advertising industry’s life a little easier.

In my humble opinion, we still miss the mark. Do I draw this dramatic conclusion from my years of intense industry experience, having implemented over 300 unique online ad campaigns over the past seven years for Fortune 1000 clients? I could, but not today. Instead, let’s examine ad sizes from the consumer’s perspective.

Why Do We Still Offer the 468 x 60?

From a user’s point of view, the appearance of a little message slice across the top of a Web page seems out of place on most sites. Let’s start with overall size and placement. It’s not the width of most common site page layouts and screen resolutions (800 x 600 and 1024 x 768, respectively). So you end up with content to the left, right, top, and bottom of the ad — most of the time, all the way ’round. No wonder a banner is lost and overlooked by most consumers. Ever ask yourself why there’s no equivalent of a 468 x 60 ad size in any other medium? Because the size and the placement are just plain clunky.

From a creativity standpoint, look at the number of rich media providers who earn a handsome living trying to overcome this shortfall. We’ve got expanding banners, overlay banners, banners with streaming video and audio, just to name a few. In the annals of marketing history, has there ever been so much effort to fix something that wasn’t too great in the first place? Ever ask yourself why there’s nothing more difficult than getting a top-level creative director to create a banner? The size and impact are just plain limiting.

This size is a noose around our necks. I’m glad the 468 x 60 didn’t make the cut in the IAB’s recommended new set of ad sizes. Let’s broom it. Rub it out. Eliminate the icon representing all things wrong with online marketing.

Why such a radical stance? The 468 x 60 still represents the majority of online ad space. We know from ad effectiveness studies it works both for brand and demand. Why kill it?

The banner will always be associated in consumers’ and traditional marketers’ minds as a dot-com era product. Banner = Bad Business Decision. No matter how hard we try, we’ll likely never overcome that perception. Yes, the decision would have a dramatic impact on publishers who have long lead times for site design and implementation. Why not start with the next redesign project?

Skyscrapers: Nice Try, But not Quite

The larger, more common 120 x 600 and 160 x 600 skyscraper ad sizes are definitely an improvement. We can see this just from marketers’ adoption rate. Skyscrapers offer more real estate to work with and a cleaner presence on the page. Most units are placed in the right column on most sites.

But customers still don’t universally like viewing skyscrapers. Why? Again, the ad does not fit most common screen resolutions well. By the time you add in browser window real estate, almost all skyscrapers require scrolling to view a complete ad. If the layout is designed as top or bottom focused, consumers miss part — or all — of the message. You know something’s wrong when current skyscraper design wisdom for calls for logo placement at both the top and bottom of the ad unit. This “advice” points to a fundamental problem with the size of the unit.

IMUs: Getting Warmer

If you’ve implemented integrated marketing units (IMUs), you’ve achieved good results with good creative. Most of these newer units (300 x 250, 180 x 150, etc.) nest nicely on a page or within a content area. I’m amazed at the creative improvement with a more traditional ad-size ratio. It’s a better piece of real estate to work with. Creative people love them because they aren’t constricted to a narrow aspect ratio (banners are horizontally thin and skyscrapers are vertically restrictive). Art directors have more freedom to experiment with shapes and sizes. It’s a marked improvement. But have we achieved the best possible impact?

Where Do We Go From Here?

I applaud the newer, extra-large format and full-screen, in-between page-view ads. They provide more impact with less clutter. Let’s experiment more with sizes, such as true half-page units (300 x 250 or more), and really draw some attention.

But wait! Won’t we totally annoy consumers with such intrusive advertising? Perhaps I’m biased, but I’ve always believed there’s good as well as bad content and good as well as bad advertising. Consumers appreciate and recognize the difference.

When will we have it right? When an average customer says, “Hey, did you see that online ad? Boy, that was great.”

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