Banners: Opportunity or Albatross?

Banner bashing has become one of the most beloved pastimes of marketing executives and the trade press. Countless articles have been written citing declining click-through rates and endless unsold inventory as indications that banner advertising and the Web are a doomed experiment.

It’s not fair. Clearly, the banner hasn’t lived up to expectations, but those expectations were distorted and hopelessly unrealistic. The banner can drive site traffic under the right circumstances and can be an effective branding tool. The problem is that click-through simply is not an appropriate or accurate measure of a banner’s ability to brand.

Driving traffic through banners and measuring results through click-through has become both opportunity and the albatross. Advertisers have been drawn to the prospect of knowing how many people are really interested in finding out more about their products, and online publishers have been desperate for a way to take revenue away from traditional media. Advertisers are not satisfied with another branding tool they can’t quite measure, so Internet publishers have been forced to rely on highly unreliable click-through percentages.

“Interactive” and “branding” have proved to be a difficult, unnatural mix. Branding is a passive condition that has been aimed at couch potatoes, radio junkies, or magazine browsers. The proactive response in these cases would be for a viewer to not look at an ad by changing channels or turning the page of a print publication.

Billions of dollars, thousands of jobs and perhaps the fate of the Internet advertising model rests on the shoulders of the banner, and we’re ready to execute it without a trial. Those little billboards at a sporting venue that do little more than publicize a brand name and perhaps a product description are widely accepted and command a steep price, and yet viewers don’t have to do a thing to prove that the message gets through.

Internet banners held out more promise and potential because they supposedly created a mechanism for the viewer to show “serious” interest. But a failure to click doesn’t mean complete apathy. The message may be getting through, but the viewer is too involved at that time to take the detour and investigate.

The IAB study of 1997 supported the premise that banners were being noticed and effectively communicating brand awareness. In fact, the study suggested that banners were more successful branding tools than television commercials. Their evidence was not based on click-through but on the same measures that traditional advertising tools have been held up to, namely recall and brand awareness.

In desperate attempts to boost click-through, advertisers will try to seduce viewers with visual images that have little or nothing to do with the product or service being promoted. This is much more likely to outrage a disappointed victim than create any positive brand identification or association. The difference between television and the Web is evident once again. We can accept a sexy woman selling a car for 30 seconds between game timeouts, but most people clicking the sexy woman on the Web expect something quite different.

Another reason banners have become a bad word on the Web is that click-through percentages have dropped to below one percent. This shouldn’t come as a shock. Newbies of five years ago were thrilled to land at any destination safely. With the threat of AOL shutdowns, fewer destinations, broken links and invalid addresses, a banner used to look more like a life raft than a land mine.

These conditions still exist to some degree today, but there is a far greater percentage of the Web population that knows generally what they want to find out and how to get there.

The key to creating a banner campaign that induces high click-through is to present a more stimulating alternative to the page a visitor is viewing or the site he or she is thinking of going to next

Here are instances where the advertiser has a good chance of engaging optimal click-through percentage:

• Fantasy. Sex sells. I’m sure advertisers selling anything connected with sex are not in the group that is calling for the end of the banner. Other fantasies, that may or may not include sex, also work under the Fantasy category, including Dream Vacations.

• Better information. Call this “ultra-precise” targeting. Let’s say someone is looking for information about dinosaurs, specifically the T-Rex, and up pops a banner for a site specifically about the T-Rex. The destination proposed by the banner ad is as good or better as the one the viewer is on.

• A chance to win something. Here’s another no-brainer. Although it is clear that the bigger the prize, the higher the participation level, three years of direct experience in this medium have taught me that people will go to great lengths for a chance to win a T-shirt, cap, or even a mouse pad.

• A chance to make money. People will click on a banner that offers a chance to make money, even if the chances of winning are remote and the grand prize is not outrageous.

• Participation. An underrated recruiting tool. Invitations to take surveys or fill out forms often work well. Interactive banners that prompt viewers for a choice or provide a personal challenge will boost click rates.

• A great deal. A sale with a sense of urgency created by a heavy demand, limited supply, unique items or a limited offer will draw people every time.

• Unique destinations. While this still works, there aren’t as many unique destinations as there used to be, and uniqueness won’t work if the advertised site doesn’t match the user demographic.

• Bells and whistles. Technology gimmicks work for a while, but viewers grow weary so don’t come in on the late side of the trend. Plus, you may not really be getting the quality traffic here.

• Celebrity affiliations. Go for a politician, athlete, business tycoon, movie star or other celebrity with a special appeal with the audience you’re aiming for.

• Salient site benefits and attributes. Unique user benefits, technologies, approaches that are significant to the end user.

If your banner campaign doesn’t fit any of these criteria, chances are the campaign will not exceed the industry standards. If it does, and the match with the site is solid, the results could easily exceed 1 percent or more.

In the meantime, let’s do the research that either validates or invalidates a banner’s ability to brand. If an advertiser adds online banner advertising to the marketing mix in one area, and compares it to an area that employs the same ad vehicles minus online ads, is there a significant difference in awareness or sales between the two areas? If this test is replicated for several brands and industries over several months of time, we can get ja fairly good idea of whether a banner that isn’t clicked on is worth much of anything. In the meantime, if nothing short of click-through will turn you on, try to provide at least one of the 10 motivators identified here, know your target, match the buy to the media and you won’t be disappointed.

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