By: Igor Černiševski, Digital Group Account Manager at Direct Media
As many as (or already) roughly 24 years have gone by since the first web banner went live. Here it is, in all its glory:
The magnitude of change that took place in online advertising in the meantime is gargantuan. For the most part, banner ads dominated the market. At one point users would literally be unable to dig a website’s content out of the omnipresent banners, which was the case on most popular sites. After that, when Adobe Flash came into play, banner ads became interactive, expandable, phonic—they started to play music, sing, and speak. As technology further advanced, the market also started profaning. So now we had pop-ups, pop-unders, and takeover banners—without recourse to shut them down or remove them. Let’s not even go into video banners with autoplay and volume to the max … These banners were one of the main reasons for ad blockers.
However—along with these poor examples—this era brought about a few brilliant ones. among them is the IKEA banner that you have to assemble on your own: http://www.bannerblog.com.au/2010/12/ikea_unbox_the_banner_3.php, or the one for VW Tiguan: https://player.vimeo.com/video/40943509?title=0&byline=0&portrait=0&color=de4323 .
The first major change in the display advertising market took place in 2015, when Google announced it would no longer display Flash content in its Chrome browser, which is the most prevalent. When that happened, the industry was seriously jolted—almost no one was ready to switch to HTML5. We practically had a several-month gap, where 99% of banners were JPG because virtually no creative agency was able to deliver functioning HTML5 banners. The main issue was that HTML5 banners had no go-to standards, instructions, or templates—which agencies were used to—leaving everything to developers. Another issue was the very scarce and vague feedback from media agencies and ad serving companies in cases of bad HTML5 banners. One of the ultimate effects of this change was shifting the focus from creative and digital agencies to ad serving companies. Ad serving companies recognized the market gap and offered templates, which made it sufficient for creatives to produce a static (JPG) creative or video content so that ad servers could pack it in templates and churn out interactive banner ads.
The second major change we are witnessing is the large penetration of ad blockers. Ad blocking targets almost exclusively display advertising—which means banners. According to the latest data available to me, which are still unofficial though, every fourth banner display on desktop and laptop computers in Serbia is blocked. This is a serious figure and a problem, especially for publishers, since nearly one quarter of their traffic is prevented from being monetized.
The rise of ad blockers is the very reason for setting up the Coalition for Better Ads. Big digital industry players teamed up and formed an alliance that in practice prescribes the rules of the game. The idea is to set standards that will eliminate all those formats that hamper user experience in order to contribute to lessening ad blocker use. The result is an ad blocker that is built in browsers—primarily Chrome—and that blocks these intrusive banner formats. Consequently, the IAB (Internet Advertising Bureau) published its new Ad Portfolio, which sets out rules for creating banners in line with the Coalition for Better Ads’ rules. To summarize the changes, banners are switching from fixed size (e.g., 300x250px) to ratio, which means that they’ll be, for example, 1:1 or 1:3 instead of having fixed size. Another big change prescribed by the new portfolio is banner loading—in the future they will have to adhere to the LEAN principle (Light, Encrypted, AdChoices supported, and Non-invasive). Rad more about the portfolio at http://iab.rs/novi-portfolio/ .
However, in addition to the technical changes, there were simultaneous changes taking place in audience behavior and perception, so one of the main issues faced by banner advertising today is the so-called banner blindness.
According Infolink’s research, as much as 86% of online users suffer from banner blindness. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the online advertising industry is the one suffering because of this, while as far as users are concerned this represents an evolutionary change. This means that website visitors simply don’t see banners, as if they’re not even there, even though they are indeed displayed. The point is that users have filtered content out and don’t see anything resembling a banner. And it’s not that they don’t want to see banners—they truly don’t see them! A 2007 Nielsen Norman Group study showed that our subconscious wipes banners out from our field of vision as soon as they appear, which means that this issue is very much real.
Where do we go from here?
What would be the solution? How can we fight this? The key is in the very definition of banner blindness: We need to start making banners that don’t look like banners! Sounds very simple, but it’s very complex in practice … What can we actually do?
The new rules introduced by the Coalition for Better Ads and the new portfolio give us a breaking point to change the so-far practice. The road to better banners forks into two: More subtlety or more intrusion—in spite of how counterintuitive it might sound.
Intrusion can be perceived in various ways—intrusive design, intrusive copy, intrusive offer. The point is to be different, make your banner so unexpected and different that it can’t be ignored.
What does this mean? For starters, avoid trends. Popular forms, colors, fonts—skip on those. If the market is flooded with, for example, black and white lifestyle photos—do not use them! That’s the direction you need to move in regarding this issue.
When I say subtlety, above all I mean native. Native advertising has been very popular lately. When it comes to banners, I see native as an approach—one that brings better results compared with traditional banners.
Users are known to prefer getting product or service information through content rather than through ads. According to Nielsen’s research, banners are the least trusted advertising form, even in comparison with traditional media. That right there is our opportunity for our banners to be seen.
The above mentioned Infolinks study indicated that native ads were noticed 47% faster by 450% more users compared with standard banners.
How do we apply the native principle to banners? The key is viewing the banner not as an ad form, but instead as a communication form. Let’s try to pack banners with interesting infographics, curious brand insights, or fun facts. This way, users are more likely to experience our banner as content, with much higher chances to click on it.
A banner for the end 😊
Let’s get back to the question in the title. Are banners still working as a form of online advertising? Most definitely! If we manage to overcome the limitations we mentioned, we will get good results. However, in an industry that changes at this speed and intensity, we can’t claim that banners are guaranteed to have a future, which means that we can only wait and see what the future will bring for display advertising.