The smug little banner
Pity the poor banner. Maligned by millions and attacked by the very people whose paychecks they (largely) make possible, the banner is perhaps the most criticized little workhorse in our culture.
But do banners let our harsh words affect their self esteem? No. Banners proudly hold their ground -- shrinking for no one. They know that other people's opinions of them are none of their business. They know that, like the periplaneta americana they will be here long after their detractors have returned to ashes and dust. Perhaps with little smirks on their faces as their last attackers return to the earth.
Why can the little banner rest easy knowing that it will get the last eight-second (max) laugh? Because no matter how much we poseurs pretend to despise them, they serve a critical purpose in the internet environment -- and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
Why can these quietly smug little messages be so certain that their future is bright? Let's take a look at five reasons.
Banners work -- hard, in fact
People wax philosophic about banner blindness. They point to remarkably small click rates and studies that suggest that large numbers of people don't interact with them.
Photo: Irina Slutsky
But empirical evidence proves that they work plenty hard. There are lots of studies that demonstrate their efficacy. I'll confine this discussion to just one. The IAB did a study several years ago that demonstrated a broad range of positive impacts from banner ads. Fielded across 12 leading websites with 16,758 respondents, the study demonstrated significantly strong impacts on awareness, brand measures, and purchase.
Further, the in-market experience of thousands -- hundreds of thousands of advertisers -- also proves their effectiveness. Digital is arguably the most accountable media available. And every year, more companies spend more money on banners. Why? Because they deliver against concrete business objectives. The results and reporting show this over and over again.
Banners work well despite serving in an environment with remarkable clutter. It's not at all unusual for there to be 12 banners on a page -- pages they might also share with video players, articles, and other forms of content. Despite this plethora of distractions, banners continue to deliver cost effective means to drive sales, awareness, and brand perceptions. Would they work better in a less cluttered page? Probably. But they do their jobs even in environments filled with myriad distractions.
2. Necessary evils
They're like death and taxes -- inevitable
Not every ad can explode on a screen in expanderiffic intrusiveness. Multiple interstitials between every page wouldn't make for much of a consumer experience. If you accept that it is unrealistic to expect consumers to seek out all of the marketing experiences necessary to keep the economy going -- if you accept that we need loads of revenue to keep the lights on at content sites -- then ads on pages are going to be part of the web experience for years to come.
Am I suggesting that they are better than rich, involving, multimedia experiences that consumers actively seek? For some brands, yes. Not every communication challenge requires depth. And most brands cannot afford to do everything with bells and whistles.
Banners are limited in their ability to communicate complicated stories. But for many companies and brands, they are the most cost-effective means of delivering a graphical message. Publishers will continue to leverage them as a means of monetizing pages in lieu of spawning foreground experiences every time the user moves a mouse over text or a photo or another page element.
Hey, if you are a brand that can afford to do everything rich and big and bold, fantastic. Knock yourself out. But in order to monetize the hundreds of millions of pages of content out there, we need a standardized, simple-to-execute solution that doesn't totally tick consumers off.
3. Revenue and technology advances
They are marvelous foot soldiers in the battle for revenue
Banners deliver great results in direct response programs, which continue to comprise fully half of digital advertising. While the click and interaction rates for banners have always been rather low, so too are their typical prices.
Premium publications can command high CPMs precisely because banners on their sites deliver results that warrant these costs. But the even bigger story is that the vast majority of banners sell for remarkably low CPMs. These low rates more than make up for the small response rates they spawn. Further, when the view-through impacts are computed, the value per dollar spent on banners is even more apparent.
Finally, the advent of affordable attribution analyses is demonstrating that banners are even more powerful components of direct-response programs, helping to drive far more sales than can be directly attributed to them through click-through analysis.
They just keep getting smarter
Minimally targeted dirt cheap tonnage will probably play an important role for lots of brands for the foreseeable future. But the explosion in available targeting data, coupled with exchange-based purchasing platforms for these targeting aids, has transformed the banner business into a world in which highly refined messages can be delivered to specific audience segments cost effectively and with minimal waste.
Photo: Geoff Stearns
That's a key way banners have gotten smarter on the back end. On the front end, new technologies have dramatically expanded the range of capabilities and interactions possible within the confines of these small commercial spaces. Video, dynamic content, multiple hotspots, and more -- these elements all drive more and different interactions amid declining third-party technology costs.
5. A sound business model
It doesn't matter that people don't like them
You'd be hard pressed to find a consumer who looked forward to seeing more banners as he or she surfed the web. But when push comes to shove, consumer preference doesn't matter much here. Banners are providing a huge portion of the revenue for content creators online. And a decent web designer can create templates and pages where banners have noticing value but don't drive viewers off.
Hey, someone has to pay for all this content and access, and banners appear to be a way to balance the need for revenue with consumers' reluctance to pay for content. People understand the need for ads and revenue. While they may not relish the experience of seeing these ads, they understand that, without them, a lot of the content they enjoy would disappear.