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Steve Lynch

To Banner, or Not to Banner?

by Steve Lynch
Senior Vice President, Creative Director, Digitas
(posted 02/01/2001)

From Digitrends, December 2000

You've read it in Shakespeare. Or more likely (since no one reads anymore) you saw it in one of the countless Shakespeare on Film events. Kenneth Brannagh's Henry V. Or Jim Henson's Muppets' Macbeth (just testing you). Regardless, the scene is usually the same. One king is slain and within seconds a new king is enthroned and hailed as the kingdom's savior.

It's sort of the same way with banner advertising. Online pundits declare the death of banner advertising and suddenly new forms of rich-media advertising spring up all over the Web.

But not so fast. The banner is far from dead. There's still plenty of life left in dem bones. You just have to be a little more inventive about how you use banners and where you use them.

Depending on whom you ask, the average click-through rate from banners is between .2 percent and .5 percent. No wonder clients are skittish about spending their money this way. But the fact is simple banner campaigns can still pull in 4 percent and higher. I've seen it happen-and recently!

The following tips will help you get the most out of your next banner campaign. While no one tip can work miracles, taken as a whole these guidelines will help lead you to better results.

Think Haiku, Not Hollywood

Online advertising, although different in many ways, does share one thing in common with traditional advertising: the best ads are simple and make one point.

When it comes to banners, simplicity means keeping your message short and limiting the frames of animation. On the Web, no one wants to wait more than a few seconds for your message. In fact, many people click through to the next page before the first page has even finished loading. Think haiku, not Hollywood. I've seen more than one banner click-through rate increase simply by removing animated frames and text.

If you don't believe me, take a look at the research. In a recent study by Dynamic Logic it was shown that the more elements you include in an ad, the less effective it becomes. According to the study, "uncluttered banners lifted awareness by 14 percent whereas cluttered banners lifted awareness by only 3 percent."

Blend In With Your Surroundings

The moment the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) agreed on standard sizes for banners, the Internet community of users let out a big, subconscious sigh of relief. "Thank you. Now I know what to ignore."

If you want your banners to work, blend in with the surroundings. I'm not suggesting you be deceptive (that doesn't work), but the chances of your message getting noticed increase the more your ad looks and feels like value-added content on the site where it's placed.

No matter what size ad unit you're running, design your ads site by site whenever possible to maximize the content and design connection to the site. Better yet, use simple HTML text. One compelling line of copy in HTML text (FREE shipping with purchase) can-and probably will-outperform the cleverest copy line or visual you can come up with.

The Web-exclusive Offer Is King

It's true in direct mail and it's true in interactive advertising-a good offer is critical to your campaign's success. It might be free shipping with your first online purchase, a free gift, or entry in a sweepstakes. Whatever. The moral of the story is that offers work.

If your client is resistant to include an offer, go back and argue for at least a test cell to demonstrate the power of offers on the Web. If possible, lobby for a Web-exclusive offer and declare it as such in the ad. I guarantee that once you compare results, you won't have to have this discussion twice.

If You Can't Blend In, Stand Out

Given what I just said a few paragraphs back about blending in, standing out on the page may seem like a contradiction-but it isn't. If you can't blend in, stand out! This does not mean getting flashy and taking the Times Square approach with more blinking and winking animation. It means avoiding the conventional 468x60 ad size. Be different.

You're more likely to attract attention with unconventional advertising sizes such as skyscrapers (148x800), full towers (120x480), and vertical banners (150x500). Or even a combination of several sizes on the same page. Longer, more vertical advertising space allows you to rethink how you create your banners. You can make the ad look like a column of site text. Or you can break the ad up into several smaller units thereby increasing the chance a site visitor may find something appealing.

For example, if you're an online bookstore, you could showcase several books one on top of the other in one static ad column without animating frames. A women's apparel company could display three of its top selling sweaters. Or you could leave most of a long vertical space empty to attract attention to the one item you want to sell (a whisper can be louder than a scream).

Limit Your Graphics

I think clients love to see clever animations in banner ads even more than creatives do. Just because you can include animation in a 10K banner doesn't mean that you should. Try a static ad. Remember Web visitors are not on a site to see your ad; they're on the site to view content. If your ad takes 10 seconds to loop through the animation your prospects may never get your complete message. Try a simple banner with limited graphics and one short message and call to action. Or try a banner with a small looping animation but static message and call to action. That way, no matter when a site visitor looks at your ad, the complete message is communicated. Sound pretty basic? It is. But it works.

The Creative Side of Good Media Buying

Since we crawled out of caves, good advertising has always been about delivering the right message to the right person at the right time. This means that even if you have the most creative ad in the world with the best offer imaginable, it won't work if it doesn't relate to your target audience.

This may seem like Marketing 101, but it is simply amazing how many advertising dollars are wasted by not targeting prospects with relevant messages. To be honest, this is more of a plea for intelligent media buying than it is a tip for creative execution. But the fact is that good media buying is creative.

Let's say you're advertising headache medicine. You could buy run-of-site inventory and hope someone sees your message. But you'd be much better off negotiating a deal with specific sections within targeted sites for more relevant placement. For example, you could have your animated GIF banner for headache remedy appear within a headache section of a health site. Or, to get more creative, you could run on investment sites and have your headache ad triggered anytime the Dow Jones or Nasdaq dropped a certain number of points. Now your message is relevant.

Consider the Art and the Science

Web advertising-and specifically squeezing the most out of the much-maligned ad banner-is both an art and a science. But too many people forget the science part.

Use good direct marketing discipline to find out what works and what doesn't. That means starting with a workable test matrix so you can test, learn and improve. Decide what you want to test then plot a course. One offer versus another? One product versus another? Whatever is most meaningful for the campaign. But don't try to tackle too many test cells or you won't learn a thing.

Here Today, Here Tomorrow

When you're knee-deep in the interactive advertising business it's easy to get caught up in the next big thing: wireless, networked appliances, PDAs, broadband, and that fantastic new technology they just announced while you were reading this article.

While it's critical to keep ahead of the technology curve, it's just as important to keep some perspective and not get caught up in what some have called "prestalgia"-that longing to go back to something that hasn't even happened yet.

So take what the pundits have to say with a whopping large grain of salt. Remember these are the same people who predicted video stores would have been obsolete by 1998 and that flying cars are just around the corner. I'm not sure where these critics live, but in my little neck of the woods-a mere 20 miles from MIT-I can't even get DSL or cable modem service! At this rate, I think it's safe to say that banners will still be part of the interactive advertising mix for the foreseeable future.

Just how long is anyone's guess.

As senior vice president, creative director at Digitas, a leading Internet marketing agency based in Boston, Steve Lynch is currently responsible for running the global interactive advertising group.



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