Why the Banner Ad Refuses to Die

OK, it’s a bit ironic to kick off a rich media column with a look at the non-rich banner ad. But before I journey into the great online advertising unknown of rich media, I wanted to get a couple things off my chest.

Back in 1999, Web pundits were extolling the death of the banner ad. Well, banners are still here (though some of the pundits aren’t). In 1997, the first of many ad-blocking software packages was unveiled, empowering users to shut off Web advertising.

But banners stuck around. As online advertising grew in form and placements and Internet users became more vigilant in their defenses against annoying advertisements, banners stuck around. Macromedia Flash came into the picture with the promise of smoother, sexier executions in the same format. The banner didn’t budge.

When rich media technologies became widely accepted and the cache of rich online advertising attracted big dollars from brand advertisers, the banner stuck around. When broadband penetration passed the critical 50 percent mark, sites began phasing in streaming video content, major brand advertisers started putting their TV spots online, and video could be delivered through just about any Flash ad, banners still stuck around.

As a marketer and a creative, I have mixed feelings about this. After all, creating a non-rich banner is about as exciting as creating a telephone book ad. But when you can send an ad to millions of people and see what they thought about it, you have that paradigm of quality and quantity working together to give you feedback on how effective the creative really is.

The bottom line is banners are still around, despite the pundits and the trashing from creatives like me, because they work. A good banner in a targeted place can still get a 1 percent CTR (define). That’s pretty good. The sheer scale of delivery is astounding; a former client on average delivered 1.4 billion banner ad impressions a month. Line up each four-second banner sequentially (not simultaneously, as practiced), and that’s more than 177 years of banner views!

Let’s take a look at exactly why they work. It’s only when we know how they succeed that we can take that knowledge and apply it to richer forms of online media:

  • Cheap, easy, and accepted. Or, put more respectfully, there’s a mature market built around them from sites that know what to charge for them, buyers who know what to pay for them, and users who know what to expect from them.

  • Contextual placement. Jeff Burger, an associate analysis director at Agency.com, likes to say that as long as publishers continue to provide relevant contextualization and targeting capabilities, the banner will continue to work.
  • The engagement layer. A banner ad succeeds at the engagement layer, meaning a user need not do anything except glance at it quickly to get a branded message. As one art director put it, it’s a tease. Less can be more. This is why people write haiku. (I’ll write more about this in a future column.)

We can apply every successful lesson from a non-rich banner to rich media. It’s that simple. Media placement, targeting, context, triggers, messages, and images can all be tested before we add the sophisticated layer of animation, audio, and video to any rich unit.

Scott Symonds, senior media director at Agency.com’s online advertising group (and from whom I steal all my media savvy), says the only sure death of the banner in the online media marketplace will come from a wholly better competitor. Despite all the very real advances in rich media, from better pricing to uniform technology and broadband-enabling a more seamless delivery, they haven’t killed the banner yet.

My guess is this wholly better competitor will be a rich media execution that can be as targeted as the banner but not nearly as ubiquitous. These new forms of advertising will be fewer and farther between, so users will seek them out the way they do all cool content. The ads’ effect will be that much more powerful when they’re delivered richly, contextually, and seamlessly.

Only then will creatives like me stop trashing the banner ad.

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