It’s news to no-one that on-line advertising is in a truly alarming state. Every quarter brings frightening statistics on the revenue shift from display to search and social and on the precipitous decline in click-through rates. (Currently less than 0.1%) MSNBC recently announced the removal of all banners from its site (although there’s some debate over the definition of a banner).
Prevailing wisdom in some quarters is that this doesn’t matter very much-that the demise of the display industry validates what so many of us have been saying for so long about the need for engagement versus interruption. That the demise of the banner heralds the rise of the platform; rich, useful and entertaining brand experiences.
I’m a passionate believer in the power of the platform. I think it’s essential that we start to move towards big, business changing digital ideas. The web can transform the way consumers interact with our brands, changing not simply brand perceptions but business models. The challenge is that there are any number of smart, engaging digital platforms out there that simply can’t get traction because no-one stopped at the outset to ask: how will people find us?
Much derided as it often is, on-line advertising plays a critical role in the digital eco-system. I am not defending the banner by any means. What I am suggesting is that there is a role for a highly visible, wide reaching and if necessary interruptive sign-posting system for the web. Of course, search is an extraordinary way of finding what I want-but what about things I don’t know I want yet?
Without an existing fan base or an influential media partner, even a genuinely wonderful brand utility may struggle to gain critical mass. Even the most passionate advocates of conversation and platform thinking now acknowledge that campaigns have a significant role to play in driving users to those platforms.
Of course, those campaigns don’t have to play out in display. We’ve seen any number of examples of the power of social media in driving traffic and referral. But with so many outstanding ideas surfacing in social media every day, even the great stuff can get drowned out. I pity the immensely useful and exquisitely designed platform that launched the week Old Spice guy went stellar.
So: if our signposts are broken, people can’t get to the good stuff. Which is why, I think, it matters that we save on-line display and why I was thrilled to see some big brains taking the subject on, from Edward Boches at Mullen to Calle Sjoenall for BBH Labs. Indeed the biggest of big guns have woken up to the problem with Google championing the future of display and AOL experimenting with new formats.
Edward has explored the potential for display to learn from the iAd model. There is undoubtedly a huge amount of food for thought here, particularly if we think about how iAd plays out on the iPad editions of our favourite newspapers and magazines.
On the iPad, on-line advertising can work at one of two extremes. Either it is engaging but relatively passive-like the best of print and TV advertising-or it is engaging and highly active, like the best apps in the store. In short, it is at its best either very beautiful or very useful and, importantly, enables very different models of engagement.
This will become increasingly important as we consume web-based content on a host of different devices. While the PC is fundamentally a lean forward experience, the iPad offers a lean-back experience-it’s no coincidence that every iPad poster shows someone so relaxed as to be horizontal. Yet as HTML 5 extends the possibility of native app-like experiences to the web we may find that we develop a range of modes of engagement even on a single device. Indeed as we consume more content through the web and we move away from search as the only method of discovery towards a more serendipitous model, we may argue that we’re already there. Indeed both the Flipboard app and the new Twitter site suggest a more lean-back, magazine-style web experience.
As Chris Anderson points out, one of the reasons online advertising is in its current predicament is that we have adapted a one-size fits all approach to display. This has not only created the infamous “banner blindness” phenomenon but has resulted in output that is neither beautiful, useful nor an effective traffic driver. It’s an extraordinary predicament and it’s interesting to note, as Anderson does, that the role of agencies was much diminished in designing on-line advertising versus other channels.
So how can we start to think differently about (and perhaps save) display?
Plan for different modes of engagement
People are no longer using the web only to lean forward-to actively seek out the things they want. New devices, design and discovery mechanics are creating a web which can be either lean forward or lean back: which are you designing for?
Add user value
Create advertising units that are either very entertaining or very useful. While it’s early days and the novelty factor is high, both click through rates and claimed enjoyment of iPad advertising are extraordinary.
Consider whether you need (or want) the user to click through
As we shift away from wholly browser based experiences to an increasingly app-driven experience, driving users out of that experience may be less and less welcome. Consider whether you really need to drive traffic to your homepage, or whether you can deliver a powerful self-contained experience. What is the ultimate objective and how important it is to drive (interesting word) the user somewhere else?
Do less, but better
The current buying model in the on-line space-where we buy millions of impressions at miniscule click through rates seems increasingly problematic. Perhaps we need to stop compensating for appalling levels of interaction by chasing millions of impressions and focus on doing less, but better. To stop pursuing incremental improvement and look for intuitive leaps.
Add social context
The bright spot in the display market is undoubtedly the power of social context. The power of peer to peer doesn’t disappear when it comes to advertising and it’s something that doesn’t just apply to advertising on social networks-social media will, after all, be like air. So should social context.