Web Advertising

by Joe Gillespie — Nov 1, 1998

Web advertising got off to a slow start.

It's not so much that the audience wasn't there - the growth of the surfing population has been nothing short of phenomenal. The problem has been partly due to the profile of the surfers, often seen as geeks and technophiles, and partly due to the oh-so-nervous toe-dipping by the advertisers themselves.

Now that is all changing fast!

In the USA alone, Web advertising expenditure for the first half of this year was nearly $350M - a threefold increase over the same period last year.

Where earlier successes were seen in the areas of computer products and financial services, in the last quarter, general consumer products have moved to the top position with 30% of all Web advertising expenditure.

With increased confidence and the introduction of more consumer-oriented content through WebTV, cable modems and such, this effect can only snowball.

Advertising on the Web

Undoubtedly, the best way to promote a product or service on the Web is to have a dedicated page or site. Here, you can tell the whole story in your own way.

You can register the URL on search engines and print it on the conventional advertising to start with, and hope that people find them. But to get real volume, you need to get a link from another high traffic site.

Sponsorship

In the early days of television and radio, programs were sponsored by companies or products. This meant that they could brand the whole program right from the main title sequence through to the end credits, and could even have the presenter endorsing the product.

This still happens, but for a national show, can be prohibitively expensive with only the largest of advertising budgets able to afford it.

Compared to television or press, Web advertising is still very low cost and sponsorship of a complete Web site is relatively affordable and allows the advertiser to reach the most appropriate target audience.

Targeting a television viewer is not a terribly useful exercise. Yes, you can insert ads during specific programs but the audience is of a general nature and much of the effort and expenditure falls on stony ground. A Web surfer, on the other hand, already has a computer and an income and lifestyle that are fairly easy to classify, based on available demographics.

The post-computer purchase possibilities provide enormous marketing opportunities in this area alone.

In design terms, a sponsor's message can be integrated into a Web page instead of being just 'stuck-on'. It can also benefit from the kinds of subtleties that get messages through when the defences are down. It's much more of a soft sell situation. The site becomes inextricably linked with the product and might even be seen to endorse it.

Recent Web advertising surveys show a marked shift in advertising spend towards sponsorship over other types of advertising.

Banner Ads

Banner ads have been used in the traditional press from the earliest times. Having a product logo or short sales message at the top of a newspaper front page means that it stands out on the newsstand, both to the reader and to the person standing opposite on the subway.

Newspaper banner ads, like any other restricted format advertising medium, can only hope, at best, to get a simple message across or to build upon an existing brand identity.

The Web page banner ad can do this too, but here the fundamental purpose is quite different. It is to act as a portal to another page that does the real selling job.

It's like a wormhole to another area of space.

From the advertiser's perspective, the banner ad mechanism draws readers to their sales site from other heavy traffic sites, just like having a prime position in a busy shopping mall.

If they have been sensible about their media buying, they will attract high quality, potential customers who have actually chosen to visit. That initial interest can then be worked upon and further nurtured.

For the site publisher, banner ads can provide a valuable source of revenue, but there needs to be a certain critical mass of hits before they become worthwhile. You will probably need a reliable 10,000 visits per month as a base level.

But consider also, the negative effects of having a banner ad on a page - there are quite a few.

Firstly, the banner is stuck in a dominant position at the top of the page, usually configured to load up first so that the reader is looking at it whilst the rest of the page is still loading. It may be a substantial part of the total bandwidth of the page and have a disproportionate impact of the speed of loading of the real content. Apart from the physical size of the graphics file, it may also be a multi-frame animated GIF.

Once everything is loaded and in place, the banner ad may overpower the page and clash with the content aesthetically. The designer has little control over this other than to allow a space in the design for a uncontrollable banner ad!

The third effect, and possibly the most serious, is the distraction factor because, if the banner ad is doing its job well, it is leading the reader away from the page &endash; after all the trouble that has gone into getting them there in the first place!

This is a fundamental problem with any type of interactive media because one distraction can lead to another and you get a series of cascading links that take the reader farther and farther away from your site.

This just doesn't happen in other types of media and the only way to counter the effect is to have a very strong visual identity and compelling content.

Banner ad practicalities

Looking at the more practical aspects, two sizes of banner ads have become the de facto standards. The full-width banner is 468 x 60 pixels and the half width 234 x 60. Some sites put file size limitations on these with a maximum of 10K not uncommon.

In placing a banner ad, the advertiser is simply paying for potential visits to his site, but the ultimate success of this goal depends on a number of factors. For untargeted sites, a click-through rate of two or three percent is the best that can be expected.

The banner ad has to be placed on an appropriate, high volume site in the first place. Just about any reader will have an interest in computer hardware and software so that is a good media buying decision for any non-specialist computer products.

For example, a site specifically about Web design would be a good place to advertise Web page design software, books and complementary graphics, animation and maybe server technology.

Then, this might be narrowed down even further to appeal to, say, Macintosh Photoshop users who want to create animated GIFs. Used like this, it can be very tightly focused and very effective advertising.

Of course, the design of the ad itself also comes into play, too. Is it eye-catching and intriguing enough to have the reader click on it and be whisked away to the sales page? This may well be beyond the control of the site publisher and comes down to the design skills of the advertising people.

In an ideal situation, the advertiser would like to pay only for the click-throughs to his site but the site publisher is only providing screen real estate for an agreed number of hits on the host page.

Were the advertiser placing an ad in the press, he would be given an audited account of the circulation of the publication and would then pay by the column inch regardless of the response. The response is not the publisher's problem &endash; it is that of the advertiser and his agency &endash; so don't be bullied into accepting payment based on click-throughs or commissions.

Banner ad rates

Banner ads rates depend on exposure and the quality of targeting.

Exposure is generally priced by cost per thousands of 'page views' or 'impressions' (referred to as CPM &endash; with the 'M' representing thousands not millions).

Untargeted ads command in the region of $5 CPM, rising to $85 CPM for highly targeted ones. The average is around $35 CPM, which would generate $35,000 per year on a page getting a million hits. Media buying agents will take around 15% commission if they place the advertising.

Even Tighter Targeting

With the advances of dynamic server technologies, the quality of targeting, and therefore the value for money an advertiser gets, could improve. By using rotating banner ads, the messages can be made to go through a pre-determined sequence per page load. This allows a message to build up or it may just be done for variety so that the reader doesn't become blind to repeated exposure to the same message.

Andy Warhol's work showed that multiple images actually dilute a message. Used excessively, they no longer reinforce the message but form a pattern that hides the content, or becomes an annoyance that is a complete turn-off for the viewer.

Some software can track the display of ads and provide detailed log statistics. Specialised agencies will provide banner rotational services for a fee, or you can buy a program to run on your own server. Prices range from free up to over $20,000, but you need to be sure that what you are buying really does what you want it to do &endash; and accurately.

More sophisticated 'content stream analysis' programs can build reader profiles so that they are being served ads that are most appropriate to them personally. To the advertisers, this sounds like an ideal situation, but such 'user profiling' is already causing a major counter-reaction and may even be illegal under some countries' privacy laws.

Some Basic Rules for Designers and Publishers

If you are considering placing banner ads, or other smaller 'button ads' on your Web pages, there are some basic, common-sense rules.

  • Be aware that they can detract from the content of your page and lead readers away, maybe never to return.
  • Make sure that the terms and conditions for placing the ad on your page are fully understood, documented, and tied up with legally binding contracts.
  • Realise that different people have different definitions of words like 'a hit' or 'a click through' - spell them out so that there is no possible doubt or confusion!

The Banner Ad Designer

If you are designing banner ads, then your priorities are different. Given their relatively small size, banner ads can attract a surprising amount of attention. Where the newspaper banner has to survive on the impact of its message or cleverness of its copy, the Web page ad can use animation to do a lot of the hand waving.

Apart from providing attention-grabbing movement, the virtual slide show effect multiplies the message area considerably, allowing more copy and longer messages. Used creatively, this can optimize the value of the small physical space.

As the whole point of the banner ad is to get the customers into the main selling arena, they should not be whisked into unfamiliar territory. If the teaser on the banner ad isn't resolved by a logical follow-up, or at least a complementary sales message on the Web page they land on, the resulting disorientation will leave them confused.

The teaser on the banner shouldn't be left high and dry but needs to be resolved by a logical follow-on or at least a complementary sales message. Merely providing a diversion from the host page to an existing and possibly unrelated Web page is missing on a whole bag of tricks.

The banner ad needs to be thought of as the means to the end, not the end in itself. It should be like a 'book jacket' for the main story, either by encapsulating the message to whet the reader's appetite for more or, better still, by providing some intrigue.

Whether you place Web advertising, host it, or create it, the medium is undoubtedly here to stay and will increase in sophistication, expenditure and importance over the next few years.

As with all other areas of Web publishing, bandwidth issues are the major drawback over traditional forms of media. But then no other single media allows the degree of interactivity that provides the initial impetus, follow-through and closed sale that you get on the Web.

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