Has the Banner Bubble Burst?

The thrill is gone. At least that's what the latest statistics regarding banner ads would have you believe.

Nielsen Media Research says banner ad click-through rates have dropped to below 0.5 percent from 2 percent a year ago. So it's valid to ask: Has the banner bubble burst? Yes and no.

While banner ad click-throughs are generally falling, you may not have to ditch banners entirely. Banners can still be effective if you're smart about using them. Here are seven ways for business-to-business Internet marketers to make better use of banners.

Get rich quick. The one banner bright spot is rich media — banners which incorporate multimedia components, interactivity or e-commerce.

The de facto standard in rich media, Enliven (www.enliven.com) is now owned by the @Home Network, Redwood City, CA, which means there's big money behind the technology. Enliven points to some impressive success at boosting banner click-throughs (responses), as well as involvement.

Still, rich media banners cost more to produce and place, and not all Web sites take them — the banners can slow down Web-page loading times. But if you're serious about building banners into a media plan, be sure to do a head-to-head test of the cost-effectiveness of rich media vs. traditional banners.

Other examples of rich media include Armonk, NY-based IBM's HotMedia, which enables banners with sound and movement, and New York-based Thinking Media's ActiveAds which enable e-commerce transactions without leaving the ad.

Test media and creative approaches. Dropping click-through rates mean dropping media costs, so you may be able to get a bargain at some sites.

Pick Web sites that effectively target your audience and negotiate aggressively. Test Web sites one against the other and test at least two different creative approaches on the same site by asking the site to randomly rotate the banners. Also, make an offer and keep it consistent to test creative.

Be sure the banners lead to different Web-response forms so you can track responses to each. Don't terminate the banners at a corporate Web page because you'll lose the lead. Even if you don't test creative, you should change banner creative frequently. The average life of a banner is about 15 days.

Test banners against e-mail newsletter sponsorships. Another worthy test is banner advertising vs. e-mail newsletter sponsorships, the text-only ads that run within the body of an e-mail newsletter.

Find one or more newsletters with sizable circulation that appeal to your target audience. Compare the cost-per-thousand impression rates for banner advertising on a comparably targeted Web site to the e-mail sponsorship.

Test banners and sponsorships head-to-head and judge them in terms of lead quality rather than quantity. Include a link to a Web response form in the e-mail ad, and link the banner ad to a different Web response form so you can accurately measure response to each.

Use banners as pre-campaign teasers. Banner advertising can be created with much shorter lead times than traditional print advertising or direct mail. Use this to your advantage by placing banner ads strategically on sites that reach the same prospects as your forthcoming print advertising or direct mail campaign.

If executed properly, the banner ad will act as “an electronic advance man,” teasing the audience and preparing them for the traditional media advertising messages to come.

Promote an Internet event. Banners can be effective alone — or in conjunction with direct mail, e-mail or e-mail newsletter sponsorships — in driving traffic directly to the front door of an online seminar. Here the banner acts as a teaser invitation, pushing the prospect to an online promotion page with a registration form that must be completed prior to seminar entry.

The prospect can be offered the opportunity to sign up in advance or enter the seminar immediately. Online seminars are proving to be extremely cost-effective for business-to-business marketers who previously invested in live marketing and sales seminars. They also eliminate the logistical headaches for the marketer and make it possible for the prospect to “attend” from the convenience of office or home.

Use banners to launch and support affiliate marketing programs. Affiliate marketing — where Internet merchants offer to place links on other Web sites and pay the site owners a commission for resulting traffic, leads or sales — is projected to grow beyond banner advertising, so don't miss your opportunity to jump on this Internet bandwagon. If you have products or services that can be re-sold on the Internet, consider creating an affiliate program and providing your affiliates with free banners they can place on their sites so they sell more of what you have to offer.

Generate revenue directly from banners. You can actually get banners to pay you back immediately by using rich media e-commerce banners. These banners build in order areas, expandable order forms and even secure server technology to protect credit card transactions — and it all happens from within the banner.

Since the prospect doesn't have to leave the site the banner is on, this potentially could facilitate e-commerce and lead to instant revenue. It's certainly worth a try if your product or service doesn't need lots of explanation and is easy to order.

Barry Silverstein is president of business-to-business direct and interactive marketing agency Directech Inc., Lexington, MA. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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