Banners are the horseshoe crabs of the Internet – evolutionary relics of another era that somehow have managed to survive while everything around them has changed. Initially created as a dial-up-friendly way for publishers to generate a modicum of revenue from their sites, display now accounts for $11.2 billion in annual ad sales, and accounts for the largest percentage of online inventory (outside of search). Nonetheless, banners are reviled by everyone who comes in contact with them. Creators find them uninspiring and hard to work with, publishers can’t charge advertisers enough for them to actually support their sites, and Internet users find them so intrusive and annoying that they are blocking them in droves. The only people who don’t seem to mind banners are on the programmatic side and are making a fortune off their distribution.
Display is long overdue for an overhaul. We desperately need new units that reflect the current state of the Internet. It’s time to re-think the banner from the ground up.
So, what does that look like? What’s the ideal digital ad unit in 2016?
1. It would have room to spread out. One thing that print, TV and radio have in common is that they hand the entire platform over to the advertiser. They allow ads to fully inhabit the environment and create any world or mood the advertiser wants within the confines of the medium. Promoted Facebook posts, sponsored “snaps” and YouTube pre-roll all operate similarly, so it’s not surprising they’ve attracted a lot of attention from advertisers and creatives alike.
Banner ads, on the other hand, lurk on the periphery of the page, in an array of awkward shapes and sizes. They go head-to-head with the content that visitors came to the site to see, and predictably, they often lose the battle for attention. Our new unit needs to be bigger and live within the content stream, not next to it or over the top of it.
2. It would be polite load, rich media. The fact that publishers still have k weight (file size) requirements is preposterous. Rich media should be the baseline standard. Polite load (after the page loads) should also be the norm and we should get the ad-tech folks working on some better compression (Pied Piper, anyone?) so that mobile users never have to complain again about slow loading ads ruining their web experience.
3. It would be instantly skip-able. The gold standard of advertising usability is the print ad. It’s impactful and immediately skip-able. Easy skip-ability makes ad-heavy magazines tolerable (see Vogue’s 4.5 lb. Fall issue), while the 14 minutes of ads during one hour of “The Walking Dead” are insufferable. To achieve this in digital, we’ll need publishers to implement some sort of in-stream placement similar to sponsored stories on Facebook.
4. It would come in only two sizes. If the ideal units are to live more “in-stream” as dictated above, then only two shapes are needed: portrait for mobile and landscape for desktop, tablet (and horizontally held phones). The units themselves should be responsive and scale with the browser to accommodate varying screen sizes.
5. It would be easy to traffic by everyone (and everything).
6. Publishers should be able to charge real money for them.Offering fewer, more impactful, and higher priced units could help solve the cost issue. Considering what Snapchat is charging for a sponsored live story ($350k), it’s clear the market will pay for quality.
Rather than just pontificating about this in the abstract, here’s an illustration of what this new display unit might actually look like (very roughly):
Yes, it’s big. But, I’d argue that even with an ad this size, the page still looks cleaner than if it had ten IAB units scattered about the edges. Aspect ratio would ideally be 16×9 to allow for easy insertion of video (sound off as a default). The edge-to-edge size is important, as the unit needs to take over the whole screen when a user scrolls it into position. A user can easily skip past it without missing a beat.
Creatively, advertisers could choose to treat this unit as a still image, a video (or a combination of both), a game, a microsite, a tiled landscape of gifs, whatever. It’s versatile – make it as simple or as rich as you want – and cost effective, and it would work seamlessly across mobile and desktop.
It’s hard to say whether this would be the silver bullet that the publishing (and digital advertising) industry needs, but it would be a huge improvement. Creatively, I’d be far more excited to work on these new units than anything out there at the moment, and I have a feeling others would agree. If the creative is better, less obnoxious, less intrusive, and more predictably placed, people might not feel the need to go out of their way to block them. Without wholesale changes in the way advertising operates on the web, there might not be advertising on the web, and that’s as much a loss for consumers of free content as it is for advertisers, publishers, and marketers.