Direct Line Blog

Picture Gmail rollin'...out images to ads

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Google is getting ready to add images to ads running in Gmail, according to The New York Times' Randall Stross. The reporter gleaned that information from Alex Gawley, Google's senior product manager who heads Gmail, for an article looking at Google's in-mail ads.

“Gawley said the image used in the ad would be static, not animated, and would be used only in cases where the e-mail message itself showed images,” writes Stross.

That's fine and all, but it's not functional. My stance on advertising is make it useful. Serve a function, and you'll be fine. Wallflower ads don't so much serve a function as much as they're just served. They're just there - like the Kardashians. But instead of infusing valuable functionality, adding images to ads only makes them prettier (to extend the analogy, the image ads are Kim and the text ads are her sisters, who's-she #1 and who's-she #2).

The argument can be made that the images serve a function by attracting eyeballs. Yes, but then who's to say those eyeballs will lead to mouse-clicks. Regardless of what Facebook ad sales chief Carolyn Everson says, mouse-clicks matter to marketers. But just as I never intentionally click on a display ad, I'm less likely to intentionally click on a display ad while I'm checking my email.

This follows the First Law of Display-dynamics: My attention can be neither created nor destroyed, so to attract a share to Point A is to divert a share from Point B. The appropriate corrollary is Newton's Law of Online Gravitation which holds that the more I'm engaged with Point A, the less I'm concerned with Point B, unless Point B's interactive value is greater or equal to thing 1.

Taken together, the laws' lovechild equates that for Point B to attract attention, it must solve the following: Divide the potential value of Point B by the potential time required by Point B and subtract from that quotient the known value of Point A. If the solution is a positive integer, Point B wins; if the solution is a negative integer, Point A wins. If the solution is a fraction, it's a toss-up. The more positive the solution, the more likely Point B wins, and the more negative the solution, the more likely Point A wins. Fractional solutions are toss-ups.

Here's another way to evaluate the equation, with Point B as a constant equaling a display ad's landing page that opens in a new tab or window. If Point A is a search engine results page, the solution is a fraction of varying size. If Point A is a content page such as a blog, the solution is a single-to-double-digit integer. If Point A is a Gmail or Facebook page, the solution resembles a Publisher's Clearing House check.

To put it yet another way, there's a reason Nascar places ads on the outside of cars versus plastering them across the inside of the windshield. The more someone's engaged with one interest, the less likely they'll notice anything else.

So how then to add functionality to Gmail ads? Well, add functionality to them, i.e. stock them with interactive features that I can use without being ejected from my email, and make those features easy and quick to complete. There's a reason display ads are evolving to rich media formats that include in-ad features such as surveys instead of essays, just as there's a reason the Facebook “like” button is arguably used more often than Twitter's “tweet” button and exponentially more often than the comments box (I only have anecdotal evidence for this, but next time you check a news site compare the “likes” to tweets to comments).

As demonstrated by the Facebook “like,” consumers aren't averse to interaction, provided the interaction solves for aforementioned laws' lovechild. Plugged into the equation, Gmail's image ads are likely to return a negative integer.

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