Bye bye banner ads?

The first ever banner ad provided content that was unexpected, relevant and very different to what the format evolved into. And, says Jon Stubley, it's time to evolve again in order to remain relevant.

22 years ago – on October 27 to be precise – when Paul Keating was Prime Minister, Boyz II Men were at the top of the charts with ‘I’ll Make Love to You’ and Yahoo! didn’t yet exist, the first banner ad to be delivered at scale appeared on Hot Wired for AT&T.Jon Stubley

Fast forward 22 years and The New York Times announced recently that it will be getting rid of standard banners and replacing them with its own proprietary formats that appear more ‘native’ across its site.

The New York Times senior vice president of advertising and innovation, Sebastian Tomich, cited Facebook as an example of being successful with more native ad formats, and noted: “I think more publishers haven’t made this move because it’s incredibly hard to do when your display business and revenue is on autopilot. You have to convince advertisers to change with you”.

This got me thinking about the banner ad – how it has evolved and where it is going next.

If we look at that first banner ad from AT&T, what stands out is that it was designed to provide a service to the user. To be of value.

The first click through didn’t link to the AT&T site, instead leading the consumer through to a microsite that provided links to the sites of the world’s most prominent museums. Remember that back then the early users of the web were artists and creative types. You can check it out for yourself here. It is pretty cool.

first-ever-banner-ad-1994Today although display advertising in Australia is big business (the latest IAB Australia/PWC figure estimates general display advertising to be worth $2.5 billion for the full year to June 2016), the rise of ad blocking, ‘banner blindness’ and the fact that giants like Facebook and Google are increasingly dominant revenue wise, suggests that the sense of value of banner ads has been lost along the way.

Why? Well to me it’s pretty clear.

Effective display advertising should harness the consumer’s flow of content consumption.  The original AT&T ad did this. The 90s were a time where you had to actively ‘go online’ – it was a distinct and separate activity from your everyday life and for the vast majority of people it meant dial-up.

Consumers were proactively seeking out information and the AT&T banner ad and museum aggregation worked well within their consumer content consumption journey.

Today though, many (if not most) adult Australians are digital natives and the penetration of smartphones in Australia  means that even for people my age who remember the dial-up days, going online is a seamless and unconscious act.Computer mouse on top of tortoise

Yet while the way we consume content has changed considerably, banner ads have stubbornly remained the same – they no longer harness the flow of content consumption.

Whether or not the NYT’s decision to adopt a proprietary format is the best approach is a discussion for another time but one thing is for sure – it’s time for a change.

Eye-tracking studies confirm that a consumer’s attention is first and foremost drawn towards the headline of an article and the image on a page whilst very little if any attention is drawn toward the banner ad.

It doesn’t help that banner ads are also often poorly targeted (or re-targeted) or even necessarily within line of sight. And even when they are technically viewable it doesn’t mean that they will automatically be seen; eye-tracking research company Sticky recently found that only half of viewable ads were actually seen.

This is why we need to find alternatives. Only last week the IAB in the US overhauled its standard ad units with IAB Australia opening a public consultation. And we are also seeing the rise of native advertising executions including the much lauded campaigns that are coming out of the New York Times marketing unit T Brand Studio.

Machine learning and advances in image recognition are also throwing up new possibilities. My own company works with publishers to provide banner ads that work with, not against, the content flow.

In our case we turn previously unoccupied real estate – images on a publisher site – into a canvas for story telling. We overlay highly contextual and relevant ads onto images which are non-interruptive and genuinely native to the content that is being read or watched.

It is going to be increasingly important for publishers and brands to experiment with new formats like all of these if they hope to stand their ground against the alpha publishers like Facebook and Google, who are taking the lion’s share of new advertising revenue and avoid driving consumers to ad blockers.

The banner ad will certainly be around to celebrate a few more birthdays yet but it will need a considerable makeover to survive into old age.

Jon Stubley is the vice president at Gum Gum Australia and New Zealand


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