June 20th, 2007
Marketers Seek a Banner-Blindness Cure
By Emily Steel
Wall Street Journal
Videos, Mini Web Sites Help Steer Eyes to Ads Often Ignored by Users
Pity the poor banner ad. Cutting-edge just a few years ago, this pioneer of Web advertising is now scorned as hopelessly out-of-date, a neglected stepchild in an era of Web video, widgets, mash-ups and social networking.
But Web sites don’t want to give up this key revenue source: Basic display ads still accounted for $3.4 billion in U.S. online ad spending in 2006, or 21% of the total U.S. online ad market, according to research firm eMarketer. So many marketers are furiously trying to jazz them up.
Take General Electric’s “ecomagination” campaign promoting the company’s green energy and technology initiatives. Web surfers who checked out AOL News, Yahoo News or MSNBC.com on the afternoon of May 24 saw a live video featuring GE Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at a “Green is Universal” news conference discussing energy issues. The video played on 95,000 people’s computers, and even though it was appearing on news sites, it clearly wasn’t a news story. It was part of an ad.
GE is one of a growing number of marketers to use videos of live events to spice up banner ads. “We’re always trying to do something a little more innovative and entertaining and be more influential,” says Jen Walsh, digital media director for GE. “Year over year we try to push the envelope with technology, content and design. Broadcasting [online video through an ad] achieves that.”
In its most basic form, a banner ad is simply a display ad, a two-dimensional piece of digital signage stripped across the top or the side of a Web page. It uses few of the special features with which more recent Web ads target and engage users, such as video or animation. Soon after traditional banner ads started cropping up on the Web a decade ago, the term “banner blindness” followed.
The phenomenon, discovered by scientists who track mouse clicks and eye movements to measure which areas of Web sites people pay attention to, describes how people ignore these ads even when they include relevant information. Most people look at Web sites in an F-shaped pattern, merely scanning the top before homing in on the middle of the page where the meat of the content most often appears.
“The big finding is that banner blindness is real. It is not just advertising banners but anything that looks like an advertising banner,” says Jakob Nielsen, a principal at Internet user research firm Nielsen Norman Group in Fremont, Calif. For example, one health-related nonprofit site has a box—not an ad—that tells users what to do if they think they are having a heart attack. But a study showed that people were missing it because of its location on the page.
To combat banner blindness, online advertisers are on an endless treadmill, tinkering with placement and bells and whistles, trying to keep consumers’ attention. “These are important pieces of real estate...as long as we can, we try to surprise a consumer and provide an experience where they spend time and have a good, enjoyable time,” says Rick Corteville, executive director of media at digital marketing firm Organic, a unit of ad-holding giant Omnicom Group.
This takes a lot of work. With live streaming video, for instance, marketers must plan the event, record it into a TV format, beam it up to a satellite, download it, encode it in a digital format and broadcast it live over the Internet. “There are teams of people devoted to this, from the lights-camera-action to the digital coding, to the behind-the-scenes capacity planning,” says Suzanne Johnson, senior product marketing manager for digital media at Cambridge, Mass.-based technology company Akamai, which helped GE broadcast its live video ad on the Web.
In addition to video, a number of marketers are starting to incorporate mini-Web sites within the box of a banner ad. Digital marketing agencies have been building such microsites, which are tied to a specific promotion or campaign, for years. But they’ve been unable to include all of the components of a microsite within an ad on another Web site because Internet connections were too slow. If the ads on a Web site were too flashy, the page would take too long to load. But as technology evolves, marketers are able to include bigger files within the banner ad space and are putting microsites within the other Web sites.
Movie studios are taking advantage of this. To promote the return of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in “TMNT,” Warner Bros. worked with Internet-ad broker DoubleClick, which Google recently agreed to acquire for $3.1 billion, to create an ad that included a video trailer, a brief description of the film, pictures, wallpaper and instant-message icons to download.
As long as advertisers stay within a Web site’s size and memory limits, they can buy ad space at the same price. Advertisers often pay more to produce the ads, but the investment is worth it, some marketers say. Video click rates are far higher than plain display ads, according to DoubleClick. Online video ads experience click-through rates ranging from 0.4% to 0.74% while click-through rates for plain-image ads range between 0.1% and 0.2%.
To be sure, some marketers question whether redesigning the banner ad is worth it. The ads might temporarily catch a Web surfer’s eye because people haven’t yet trained themselves to ignore them, but could easily fall into ranks of yet another ignored banner ad or a hated pop-up, says Greg Verdino, chief strategy officer at independently owned new-media marketing firm crayon. “I think the first natural inclination for advertisers and agencies is for them to innovate within the four walls of the space that they’ve been given before you look to innovate by breaking that space and doing something that’s truly first to the market,” Mr. Verdino says.