- Why everyone who says “banner ads are dead” is wrong.
- How the next generation of display ads will behave like mini web apps.
- HTML5 and how it’s going to change the way display ads look and act.
Had a fun time on Wednesday last week participating in “Display Advertising for Brand Awareness,” a roundtable webcast along with several other luminaries from such companies as:
- ReTargeter (the organizer) — one of the top retargeting networks
- Bizo — an online marketing platform sepcifically for B2B marketers
- Vizu — helps measure the impact of your online branding & advertising
- Flite — similar concept to Canned Banners, except Flite has a more sophisticated GUI and is intended for advanced users needing to design rich media creatives, as opposed to standard banner ads
This ended up being a great discussion around display advertising in the context of brand awareness, as opposed to direct response, which often dominates the focus of online advertisers. Listen to the recording for some great thoughts on:
- Best practices for ad creative in the context of a brand awareness campaign
- How retargeting can be best used to generate brand awareness
- The future of online branding
An improvement on the LUMA-scape
Mediaplex recently published a new map of the display ad landscape. It’s like a cleaned-up version of the famous LUMA-scapes.
It’s a great graphic, and this post isn’t intended to diminish its value. If Mediaplex neglected to include ad creation, I’d like to explore why, and then figure out what to do about it.
PDF version on mediaplex.com
Where does creative fit in?
Mediaplex seems to have left out any mention of display ad creative, or more specifically, how ad creative originates. It’s as if ad creative appears out of thin air; it’s even difficult to say which ring said ad creative would choose to materialize in. But given the fractured and inefficient way that the display ad ecosystem deals with ad creative, it’s completely understandable why Mediaplex omits it. LUMA is guilty of the exact same thing.
There are, however, sections of the Mediaplex graphic that imply the existence of ad creative:
- Rich Media (a broadly-defined creative format)
- Creative Optimization (the process of algorithmically perfecting an existing creative concept)
- Ad Servers (serving up existing creative files or ad tags)
Ad creative, go stand in the corner.
If Mediaplex and LUMA are attempting to encapsulate the entirety of the display ad landscape, it follows that anything left out must not be part of the landscape.
However, I don’t think that Mediaplex or LUMA are intending to imply anything of the sort; they know as well as anyone that you could remove large swaths of both their existing landscapes (MediaPlex | LUMA) and still have a functioning system where advertisers can run display campaigns. But remove ad creative and the whole thing grinds to a halt.
So why does ad creation get the short shrift? A few theories:
- The industry pundits making the graphics don’t fully understand how or where ad creative originates.
- Many industry participants still buy into the fable that ad agencies are like storks that deliver babies. Agencies are where ads come from. End of story. Now stop asking silly questions that will just embarrass everyone.
- The creation of ads is seen as a given, therefore it’s taken for granted and not scrutinized.
- Failure to grasp the distinction and relationship between the creation of display ads and the trafficking/tracking/optimization of display ads.
- Shallow, uninformed, or misguided assumptions about the creative process.
- An overall bias towards engineering in the display ad ecosystem.
To illustrate just how much is being omitted, I created a rough overlay of where ad creative comes from (below). It’s literally all over the map (and my overlay doesn’t even chart the complex paths that a piece of creative might take after it’s been generated).
You’re a mess, get your act together
As I’ve pointed out, even if the Terry Kawajas of the world wanted to add a “Creative” section to their ecosystem maps, where would they put it? What companies would it include? What would “Creative” be adjascent to and how would it interact with its neighbors? There are literally hundreds of answers to those questions.
Display ad creation is currently a free-for-all. The only real standards come from the IAB, and those mostly boil down to a ever-growing array of width x height pairings. Beyond that, it’s whatever you can cobble together and successfully sneak past ad ops.
What all this implies is that ad creation is sorely in need of standardization. Ad creation isn’t just a necessary evil, it’s one of the lynch-pins of the whole ecosystem, so making it more efficient deserves some serious thought.
Let me suggest a handful of opportunities that would arise if digital display ad creative shared a common set of standards that went beyond basic attributes like width x height or file size:
- No more wasted time haggling with ad ops over Flash versioning and clickTAG minutia (seriously, this alone probably costs the online ad industry hundreds of millions of dollars every year in wasted time).
- A single ad can more easily re-render and re-size across a burgeoning and increasingly unpredictable array of browsers, devices, screen types, and ad unit sizes (to help solidify the implications of this, think where the web would be if HTML/CSS wasn’t a universal standard and every company needed to create dozens of separate but nearly identical websites to accommodate the different screen sizes & devices used by viewers).
- Ads can be generated much more easily. No longer does an agency need field a platoon of designers to spend weeks creating ads in 20 sizes and 6 idiosyncratic creative formats…all for a single campaign.
Need display ad creative? Currently you’ve got some amazing options. Have fun.
Why are display ads still like fax machines?
The standardization of display ad creative also enables a tectonic shift from unstructured to structured data. Let me stress: this will be huh-yooge when it happens.
To illustrate the chasm between unstructured and structured data, think of insertion orders. A faxed insertion order sitting on a desk is unstructured data. It’s impossible for a machine to parse or manipulate whatever information is contained in a paper fax. Any potential scale, efficiency, or automation is lost, locked up in a piece of paper.
On the other hand, RTB transactions are like billions of mini insertion orders, except they’re executed at massive scale via billions of points of structured data.
- faxed insertion orders = unstructured data = vastly inefficient and old-fashioned
- RTB = structured data = highly automated and scalable
Just think of display’s savior, retargeting. How would retargeting even be possible if media buys were all still executed via fax?
Want more on structured versus unstructured data on the web? Here’s an oldie but a goodie.
In a display ad ecosystem that’s increasingly data-driven, automated, and scalable, display ad creative seems to be getting a pass. This is a huge mistake, but rest assured it will change eventually. There’s way too much pent-up efficiency waiting to be unlocked.
I’ll leave you with a final hypothetical to illustrate the potential value of structured data as it pertains to display ad creative:
Imagine the Travelzoo ad above right…the structured-data version that’s machine-readable. If, for every impression, a publisher site can understand the content of all available ads bidding for that impression, the publisher can reliably contribute to the decision of which ads to show. After all, the publisher and advertiser are basically after the same thing: the most relevant & compelling match between viewer and ad.
However, that decision is currently mostly a one-way street. Advertisers have a great deal of control over which publishers/networks on which to run ads, but publishers have less and less control over exactly which ads get shown on their sites, in part because there is no existing way for a publisher to parse the content of an ad in the split-second it takes to complete an RTB transaction or choose an available ad from a server.
This would be akin to Netflix taking down their website and then blindly sending me DVDs based only on their own recommendation algorithm. Sure, some of the movies would be great, but without my direct input into choosing movies, Netflix would send me a lot of unwanted stuff.
In conclusion (finally)
Sorry if it seems like we’ve ended up miles from where we started. Let’s recap our journey:
- Display ad ecosystem maps seem to overlook ad creation.
- This isn’t surprising, ad creation is stuck in the dark ages.
- How would ad creation have to change in order to become better integrated into an otherwise highly data-driven ecosystem?
And there you have it…love to hear some thoughts in the comments.
Dax Hamman, Chief Revenue Officer at search retargeting platform Chango, mentioned us in a piece today on Search Engine Land. The piece describes the huge opportunity available to search engine marketers (SEMs), who can now use search retargeting to extend their PPC dominance to the world of display advertising.
Why is search retargeting such a MASSIVE opportunity for SEMs?
Here’s a hypothetical scenario: when someone searches for “laptop” on Google, they’re probably looking to buy one, or at least researching products and seeking out retailers and pricing. This intent is incredibly valuable advertising data; someone searching for “laptop” has just raised their hand to a sea of retailers and announced: “Hi, I have between several hundred and several thousand dollars to spend on a laptop.”
Search for “laptop” and dozens of companies instantly start competing for your business.
The searcher may click on one of the ads, but they probably won’t immediately make a purchase; laptops are expensive and a consumer is bound to research several models before making a decision.
If I’m a search marketer at Lenovo, do I only get one chance to grab the buyer’s interest with my search ad? With traditional search, the answer may be yes…the buyer might make a decision after an initial search for “laptop” that puts hundreds of retailers and products out of the running. For example, the buyer searches for “laptop,” does a little research, and from then on, only considers buying Apple laptops, meaning that Lenovo, along with the entire PC laptop industry (which is massive), is out of the running after only one Google search.
A great opportunity to sell a laptop, LOST.
Enter search retargeting (a little more on how it works). The laptop buyer may not have clicked on my search ad, but search retargeting lets me capture the buyer’s intent and use it to show the buyer follow-up display ads. This gives me, the marketer at Lenovo, dozens of additional chances to recapture the buyer’s attention as they surf the web. And if the buyer refines his/her research by searching for “desktop replacement” or “best laptop battery life,” then I am now able to feature display ads for Lenovo’s desktop replacement laptops that have great battery life.
When this kind of targeted follow-up advertising is aggregated over millions of searches and tens of thousands of potential buyers, the lift in performance and ROI over traditional search ads alone can be massive.
Helping search marketers transition into display
The key, of course, as Dax points out, is scaling and segmenting your display ad creative in the same way that SEMs can quickly test, refine, and segment their text ads.
But display ads are so much more complex (more on text-only ad versus display ad complexity). Given that creating text-based search ads requires no extra software or resources at all, the challenge of moving into display can seem quite large, as it may necessitate hiring expensive designers, and going through lengthy review and revision cycles.
It doesn’t need to be that convoluted. Streamlining the display ad creation process for SEMs is one of many things Canned Banners is developing tools for. More to follow on how we’ll be helping SEMs tap into this massive opportunity.
This is a guest post by Tim Nichols, Principal Media Director at Exact Drive, where he helps launch and manage both traditional and dynamic display ad campaigns on behalf of clients in the travel, retail, and political industries, and more.
Generating ads in real time is the future of display advertising. So-called “dynamic ads” can access the most recent and relevant data to generate ads on-the-fly that are custom-tailored to the viewer. The result is higher engagement rates, fewer wasted impressions, clearer campaign data, and improved ROI.
Unfortunately, the technology and techniques behind dynamic display ads are poorly understood outside a relatively small number of companies at the heart of the online ad ecosystem.
This post will describe:
- How media buyers and campaign managers can identify valuable customer data that advertisers already have (such as retargeting segments);
- How to integrate customer data into a media strategy; and
- How to use customer and media data to dynamically generate display ad creative that’s custom-tailored to each prospect.
1. Be careful of data overload
There’s a ton of data to deal with here, so realize it will take patience and testing to get your creatives and campaign dialed in and optimized. In addition to all of the actual customer data to manage (e.g., age, income, gender, geo-location, retargeting segment, etc.), you have creative data (e.g., size, layout, look, feel, color, animation, etc.) and media buying data (e.g., which websites to target, banner location, media costs, time of day performance, etc.). Before you build anything, understand the client’s goals and work backwards from there. Make smart decisions about which data is actually going to help the campaign meet (and hopefully exceed) its goals and contribute to a positive ROI.
2. Set expectations with the client
With so many data points in the mix, it’s going to take some time to get it right. So it’s important to set proper expectations with the client ahead of time. The end result will most likely be very positive; just don’t pull your hair out during the process because your client is expecting magic results within the first 24 hours of the campaign’s launch. Lots of flexibility and data can be exciting, useful, and rewarding, but at the same time it can be overwhelming, stressful, and cumbersome. Make a strategic plan ahead of time and set proper expectations and timelines for the client.
Tapping the potential of dynamic ads
Make every impression count; tailor every ad to the customer. Every customer is unique, so why show everyone the same ad? Dynamic display ads match prospects’ interests and needs with your client’s products and services. Customers are targeted in real time with individually-tailored offers. This results in being able to show ad creatives that are relevant and effective.
By properly combining customer data points with a dynamic ad creation solution, you can bring your clients’ campaigns to life with offers, messages, and products that are always fresh and relevant. Don’t limit your campaign with “one-size-fits-all” ads, because you aren’t trying to sell sweatpants at a mall. Well, maybe you are selling sweatpants, in which case, dynamic ad creative that shows each viewer the specific size, color, and style of sweatpants they’re looking for will probably help you sell more sweatpants.
Sample use cases
The exact customer data points and the ways that customer data are combined with media tactics will be different for every campaign. These are just a few ideas to get you started.
Travel and leisure
Automatically promote the latest offers, pricing, and availability without having to manually design, create, and upload new sets of ads. This helps you avoid displaying an ad for a sold-out trip, which can be frustrating for the customer and decrease their confidence in your service.
Automatically show potential home buyers nearby listings, descriptions, and photos. You will avoid showing a generic creative of a house for rent outside the customer’s location, which is less enticing and relevant to the customer.
Channel the right deals to the right customers with geographic and demographic targeting. There’s no reason to waste budget on displaying ads to customers outside your company’s geographic reach.
Retarget lost site visitors with the precise products and categories they previously browsed, showing current pricing and availability. This is much more engaging than showing a customer a generic ad for your e-commerce website versus a creative displaying the last four products the customer browsed.
Why are display ads:
- Often ignored or overlooked? (both consciously and unconsciously)
- Not clicked?
- Generally regarded with suspicion (or *gasp* derision)?
Obviously there are lots of reasons, but one of the big ones is that display ads are commonly delivered by publishers in interruptive ways (ditto display ad content, which is often crafted by advertisers to intrude on the viewer’s browsing experience, rather than supplement it—more thoughts here).
What Gramfeed did
This is why I thought the Gramfeed blog was worth highlighting. It’s a very simple example of something a publisher can do to make display ads less obtrusive and, for lack of a less sinister term, help “sneak” the ad into the visitor’s mind along with the site content.
Here’s how Gramfeed does it: they add a subtle shadow around the ad placement. This causes a 3D effect, which creates a little visual tension (why is that thing not flat like my screen?) and also makes it seem as if the page content and the ad placement are sharing a single three-dimensional space (which puts the page content and the ad content on the same “plane” in the viewer’s sub-conscious, both geometrically and metaphorically). The shadow also matches Gramfeed’s overall blog design.
Here’s the leaderboard placement at the top of Gramfeed’s blog:
And here’s a closeup of the shadow “illusion” that they’ve added “underneath” the ad. In actuality, the shadow sits completely outside the rectangular 728×90 ad placement—the shadow is not part of the ad itself.
Now let’s scroll to the bottom of the page to see how this shadow element matches and dovetails nicely with the blog design:
Let’s also take a look at the skyscraper placement on the right side.
Check it out! It’s me being retargeted by one of my own company’s display ads!
Gramfeed has used the shadow element here as well, making the 160×600 display ad appear more innocuous, like a sticky note.
And the visual transition from page content to ad is much smoother and less abrupt. So the ad placement tends not to repulse the viewer with desperate, implied shrieks of:
“Hey! I’m a display ad placement! Look at me! Look! Look over here! Pleaaaaase why won’t you look?!?!”
So, good for Gramfeed. What about your site?
Making display ads less interruptive
If visitors have been trained to ignore display ads, in part because of the interruptive ways in which they’re typically delivered, then think about what you can do to make your ad placements less obtrusive. When someone visits your site, they obviously want your content, so why not make changes to nudge your display ad placements closer to the “content” bucket and away from the “ads I should ignore” bucket?
Is this going to ensure that everyone notices your advertisers’ ads and clicks with wild abandon? Of course not, but in the world of display advertising, depending on the metric (e.g., clicks), your advertisers may jump for joy at a fraction of a percent lift.
And the concept of “less interruptive” does not equal “no pop-up ads.” Even when you set aside the ad content itself (which publishers often have little control over), a publisher can cause display ad placements to interrupt the viewer’s browsing experience in less obvious ways:
- Where are ads placed on the page?
- What’s immediately around the ad unit?
- Are there lots of ad placements on the page, or just a few?
- What kind of content has the publisher put on the page?
- Is there a good match between visitor interest and ad content?
What Yahoo! did
Here’s an example of Yahoo! making two subtle design choices on their homepage that work to set the 300×250 ad placement apart from the page content, and therefore paint “That thing right there is an ad” in bright red letters in the viewer’s subconscious:
Ignore for a moment the general awfulness of the ad content; there’s no way that particular ad will ever feel like it belongs on the page. But let’s zoom in and note two things that Yahoo! is doing to set the ad placement apart from the surrounding page content:
- The right column content is about 341 pixels wide, while the ad is 300 pixels wide (as 300×250 display ads tend to be).
- The Yahoo! homepage separates content chunks in the right column with a subtle double line. This double line appears below the ad placement, but not above, which is different from every content chunk that appears beneath it.
This is just an example. Yahoo! might have very good reasons for these design choices; I’m sure they study their homepage interaction quite closely. But the ad placement is clearly not trying to integrate itself into the viewer’s browsing experience; it’s meant to be absorbed (or written off) as a separate entity.
Share and enjoy
We don’t get a lot of comments on this blog, but I’d be curious to hear about what other publishers are doing to integrate display ad placements in subtle or clever ways.
Just ran across a great example of B2B display advertising. It’s an ad from Acquisio promoting a webinar. The ad appeared alongside a very relevant article on SearchEngineLand.
This is a great example of top-of-funnel marketing and is totally in line with what we’ve been saying about B2B display advertising. If I’m reading a trade journal article about display advertising, I might very well be interested in watching a webinar on retargeting.
And contrary to what many Display Ad Nay-sayers (we’ve all met them and suffered their withering, narrow-minded criticisms) might think, the ad itself is tasteful and unobtrusive. It serves as a supplement to the article, instead of trying to distract the reader from the content. That’s a key idea to keep in mind when running B2B display ads: don’t expect to “wow” the viewer into clicking your ad or absorbing your message. Offer a meaningful message in a professional context; offer something that a B2B buyer might actually find valuable in their search for products and services. Remember, the average B2B buyer is spending at least several thousand dollars, so they probably won’t be enticed in the same simplistic ways that Groupon entices you with cheeseburger & sushi ads.
I dug into the page code, and it looks like this ad was running on the Google Display Ad Network, perhaps on a straightforward contextual basis, meaning that it might show up when the page content includes very industry-specific terms like “display advertising” or “display ecosystem.”
Every local online ad sales team needs to have a fast, easy way to create ads for clients. It’s a really simple way to shorten their sales cycle and generate interest from prospects. Get the full story in 5 minutes (it’s narrated, so turn on your audio).
Here’s the banner preview link referenced in the deck: www.cannedbanners.com/saved/view/2369.
Top Reason Users Don’t Click Banner Ads: They Don’t Want to Be Diverted From Their Current Online Activity
It’s a well-documented fact and challenge that average banner ad clickthrough rates are very low, somewhere around 0.09 percent (that’s just 9 clicks out of every 10,000 times an ad is shown).
A recent study sponsored by AdKeeper and 24/7 Real Media surveyed consumers and asked them why they don’t click on banner ads. The number one reason given: 61 percent don’t want to be distracted: “Online banner ads take me away from my current website, or from what I am doing.”
You could look at this research and conclude that people just hate all banner ads, therefore there’s no point in running banner campaigns. But such a conclusion would ignore a few key points:
1. If people don’t want to be distracted from their current web page, then put a lot of relevant content right in your banner ad. That way the viewer doesn’t have to click the ad in order to learn about your products/services. Canned Banners has all sorts of templates that allow you to include lots of product info. Here’s a good example of a template that can feature multiple products and descriptions.
2. A lot of banner ads look downright awful, which probably explains some poor performance. But this study doesn’t seem to have examined that aspect, aside from noting that “43 percent [of consumers] say online banner ads don’t seem interesting or engaging” (the concept “interesting and engaging” could have to do with multiple factors, including targeting, which is quite independent of how an ad looks). It seems to me that the study might have provided deeper insight into consumer behavior by passively observing people in test scenarios, rather than simply asking survey questions, which tend, by their very nature, to lead people to give certain answers. Such observations might reveal how the appearance of a banner ad (regardless of the product/service being advertised) affects its clickthrough rate. However, that probably would have been a much more expensive study to conduct.
3. Some banner ads get much higher clickthrough rates than 0.09%. Canned Banners’ own ad campaigns have done better than that. First, it’s important to target your ads intelligently. Understand who your customers are and then find them online by buying inventory on specific types of websites or targeting specific keywords. Don’t just run your banner ads everywhere, because then it’s almost certain that you’ll get low clickthrough rates. Second, utilize tactics like site retargeting, search retargeting, and geo-targeting. These tactics will help you pinpoint your customers; as long as you’re showing them well-designed, relevant banner ads, you’ll probably see clickthrough rates significantly higher than a measly 0.09%.