Q Thoughts

Banner Ads: Flawed, Or Just User Error?

For a long time now Internet display advertising – banners — has been derided as ineffective. Indeed, display advertising is the butt of most jokes about Internet advertising. As recently as yesterday, I was listening to a pitch from a start-up company where the CEO went to great lengths to distance the offering of her company from banner advertising. (As an interesting aside, she casually went on to explain that essentially all of her revenue to date was exclusively from banner advertising.)

Is the Internet display ad format ineffective, or is it just that so many campaigns are executed so poorly?

I recently conducted a little experiment of my own on the state-of-the-industry in terms of online display advertising. I looked carefully at 10 different display ad campaigns. These campaigns were being run by large advertisers such as RadioShack, Casio, Best Buy and Northwestern Mutual. They appeared on top sites such as Yahoo, The New York Times and People Magazine. I’m not talking about low-end ads on small sites.

Ad effectiveness is usually measured in terms of click-thru rates (CTR), or conversion to some desired action at the destination landing page of the ad (Conversions).

Given that CTR and Conversion are the coins of the online display ad realm, I evaluated the ads on three criteria that lead to higher CTRs and conversion: clear offers: calls to action and contextually relevant destinations, or landing pages.

These critera clearly aren’t the only ways to evaluate an ad. The campaign could be deployed just to create awareness and its visual impact might be the only thing that matters to the advertiser. I’m sure these campaigns exist. However, in my online advertising career I have yet to encounter an advertiser that doesn’t look carefully at either the CTR or the Conversion — even on campaigns with awareness objectives.

So, how did these 10 ads stack up?

To be sure, they all looked great.

But, seven of the 10 ads had extremely weak offers (“We’ll help you find a digital camera…”) or no discernable offer at all. I’m holding these ads to a pretty low bar: could I tell what I might gain from engaging from the ad or the advertiser? I printed these out in color and studied them. The average user clearly wouldn’t do that.

The same seven had weak or non-existent calls to action. An example of a weak call to action was “Learn More,” or even less specific such as “Retirement”. On the ads with non-existent calls to action there was no obvious next step that the viewer was supposed to take with the ad. One of my favorites was a 300×250 rectangle for a digital camera by a top manufacturer. The ad named the camera product line, listed 3 common technical features (the equivalent of saying “Car: bumper, engine, four wheels”) , had a tiny photo screened back so it was barely visible and had a little “Available at Best Buy” graphic. I guess that was a call to action of a sort.

The destination landing pages from the ads were better than expected based on the quality of the ads. But, six of the ads had landing pages that either weren’t contextually relevant to the ad, or were weakly related to the ad. There were no truly egregious landing pages in the sample, such as a corporate home page, but some of the ads came close. In some cases, it was the corporate home page modified with a graphical section to acknowledge the fact that the visit was sourced from a display ad.

I’ll bet that every one of these campaigns was measured on the basis of CTR or conversions. Yet most of them clearly weren’t optimized for these objectives.

So, is it the format or the use of the format?

Categories:Posts from 2008


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