January 4, 2008

Stop With The Dancing Cartoons Already: 7 Tips For Better Banners

by Freddy J. Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango LLC

Frankenstein created a monster. And advertisers created the banner ad. Fortunately, advertisers can still fix their hideous beast before it gets totally toasted by us villagers…

First, a little background…

Back in the late ’90s, when I was creating online ads for Toyota, a good click-through rate for banners was 3-5%. That’s about the same as the response rate to an effective direct-mail campaign. Today a “successful” banner scores a click-through rate of less than one-half of 1%. In other words, banner ads are now less effective than junk mail. And yet advertisers are still spending BILLIONS on them.

We consumers have all learned to ignore banners, particularly on sites where we want to hang out. As in, dude, I’m trying to savor my sports/videos/lurid fantasies here – why should I click on your banner to go somewhere else?

And yet banners persist. And since consumers ignore them, the banners have become annoying. Really annoying. As in pajama-wedgie annoying. They’re the online equivalent of the late night TV commercials that scream at you, “BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!!!” Some banners are visually annoying, like the mortgage ads with their crude dancing animations. (At least they don’t flash and quiver like a firefly on a bad acid trip, like some banners I’ve seen.) The most annoying banners are the talking ones that “congratulate” you for “winning” a free iPod or other contraption you’ll never get your hands on.

Since apathy hasn’t driven such banners into oblivion, tech savvy consumers have turned toward antipathy. Adblock Plus is an add-on application for the Firefox browser that blocks most banners. It threatens to do to banners what TiVo has done to commercials. And I endorse it 100%. In fact, I have it on right now.

“You’re stabbing us in the back, you traitor!” say my fellow advertising professionals. “You’ll destroy our industry!”

“You’re kneecapping our sponsors, you content thief!” say my fellow bloggers and webmasters. “You’ll destroy online publishing!”

To which I say, no, I’m not destroying squat. It’s awful banners that are doing the trick.

On the downside, Adblock Plus is indiscriminate. It blocks all banners, even good ones like… hmm, I can’t think of any. It also blocks some website content as well, such as certain video formats. In time, I’m sure the good techies at Adblock Plus will figure how to rectify this. (And no, I have no connection to that company whatsoever. I just use their product.) The multimillion-dollar question is, will advertisers instead rectify their banners to keep consumers from blocking them?

Knowing how business works in America (“sue the bastards!”), I doubt it. In the tradition of the psychotically litigious RIAA and MPAA, marketers and webmasters will probably invest all their time and energy into trying to disable or ban Adblock Plus, or to keep Firefox from working on their websites.

However, if you do choose to go the banner route, and you want to do it right, follow these tips to avoid costly mistakes, such as annoying the hell of out of your potential customers:

1. Don’t run banners on cluttered sites. If you want to be noticed, avoid most portals, video sharing sites, e-commerce sites, and other destinations where there’s too much to meet the eye. (Feel free to ask me how to advertise on such sites.) Instead, pick sites where the primary content consists of text, not images.

2. Pay for clicks, not eyeballs. When you do buy, insist on cost-per-click instead of cost-per-thousand. Remember, most ads are ignored, so you’re not really getting the “impressions” the host site claims you’re getting (especially if the consumers are using Adblock Plus).

3. Integrate your ad into your host’s site. Unless consumers are searching, they generally prefer to stay on the site they’re currently surfing. So try to make your ad a part of the site, which might require creating a dedicated page on that site for more info. It negates ad blocking, and your hosts will also appreciate that you’re not sending their hard-earned traffic elsewhere.

4. Make it relevant to the site content. If you’re on a sports site, use a sports theme. If you’re on a sci-fi blog, get futuristic. And if you’re advertising on an Apple fan site, don’t run an ad for Windows – unless you really want to be ridiculed. It seems obvious, but most bad banners have absolutely nothing to do with the sites they appear on. Take a second to understand who’s surfing those sites and why!

5. Present an offer that consumers can’t refuse. Once you understand the site and its surfers, don’t just present your product and say “click here.” Provide a good reason for the consumer to do so, such as a contest or special offer.

6. Be clever instead of annoying. Yes, basic rules of advertising apply even to banners. Be funny, provocative, daring. Any loud jerk can attract attention, but it takes a smart marketer to drive action. Can’t think of anything? You can always hire a great agency (hint, hint…).

7. Think beyond words or pictures. You’re not limited to what I had to use in the 90s. Put a video or a game in that banner space. Video is hard to resist, and it enables you to say a lot more – with a lot more creativity – than a glorified miniature billboard.

Will this guarantee 100% click-throughs and the adoration of millions of consumers? Uh, no. If I could guarantee that, I’d be running my own island kingdom somewhere. But by following these rules, you’re less likely to pull a Frankenstein and more likely to create an ad that truly grabs consumers – not by the throat, but by the imagination.

***

Related Article: And The Standards Go Out (The Browser) Window: Banner Ad-Nauseum

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

One Response

  1. “ask for clicks…” have you seen click-though rates?! It is such a dated metric and in most cases, pointless. Most online ads are branding campaigns. You simply can not measure brand effectiveness with a reponse based metric – and if they are not being seen, and remembered, then they are poorly designed. You would not measure TV ads by how many people picked up the phone. Answer is to understand the user environment and develop better experiences in situ on site.

    Heres my argument:
    http://deandonaldson.wordpress.com/2008/07/21/for-consumers-sake-let%e2%80%99s-drop-kick-the-click/

    Freddy’s Comment: Actually, Dean, many advertisers do measure TV ads by how many people pick up the phone. Or by how many people type in the unique URL featured in the ad. With increasing TiVo and DVR usage, a direct-response mentality might become even more prevalent.

    I absolutely agree that click-through rates are appalling — indeed, that was one of the core themes of this article. My suggestion is that, if you must buy, only pay for clicks, because the number of “impressions” is an even more bogus statistic, particularly with Adblock Plus in wide use.

    I for one hate banner ads from both a consumer and advertiser perspective — again, a core theme of this article (did you actually read it or just skim it?). But considering how god awful most online ads are, I vehemently dispute your assertion that “most online ads are branding campaigns.” Which “congratulations, you’ve won a free iPod” ad have you been looking at?

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