The Continuing Search for Online Ads that Work

Online advertising hasn’t been a bust for traditional media sites, but it certainly has been a disappointment. The present situation is that the rich (Google) get richer as search revenues grow even in a recession. Elsewhere, rates are soft and basic questions linger about the effectiveness of display advertising on newspaper and broadcast outlet Web sites.
 
I have encountered a surge of reminders in recent weeks of how much ground needs to be covered before online pulls even with the tried-and-true of television and print.
 
Monday’s New York Times carried a detailed report on Disney’s new online ad research facility in Austin, Texas. Using eye-tracking and other sensory monitoring devices, the lab aims to generate a new body of research on what works and what doesn’t.
 
Since Disney owns ABC and ESPN, the initial work has focused on TV, establishing, for instance, that running the sports ticker during ESPN ad breaks enhances attention to the ads. Some conclusions have been drawn about online ads as well; one early finding is that “transparent” ads that appear over videos (in which the video is visible underneath) are more irritating than “flyout” ads next to the player, and they are equally effective.
 
I spoke a month ago at a well-attended Digital Media Conference outside Washington and sat in on some inside-baseball talk among online ad pros. There I encountered the term of art “banner blindness,” referring to how often users don’t even see those ads as they scan for the content they want.
 
Several on the panel agreed that a few ads get 10 to 20 times as much attention as the rest. The thinking is that very simple clickables (e.g. “What’s new at McDonald’s? Click here”) outperform bigger and more fully illustrated banners. The strategy is to initiate some interactivity and thus be noticed.
 
I’m not suggesting that newspaper and broadcast agencies are asleep at the wheel as they try to turn around the ad performance of their Web sites. This is the year when Yahoo’s partnership to provide behavioral targeting, which will support higher rates, will be rolled out fully. McClatchy and others are reporting positive results, though one of my industry sources said that only means that plenty of advertisers will try the new system — not that it has delivered results.
 
Bob McCann, who directs Nielsen’s extensive Florida operations, stopped by for lunch at Poynter the other day and suggested that online audience and advertising measures must get more extensive and precise before the medium achieves parity in the eyes of ad buyers.
 
The fact that digital media already has become a $25 billion a year business suggests that it could be poised for a second growth spurt once measurement questions are resolved. But there are new questions on top of the old. Is there a combination of news and ads that will win the hearts of the growing mobile market? How can brands capitalize on social media without intruding on conversations that users want to conduct about something other than products and services?
 
I was recently amused to find that Mr. Long Tail himself, Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired, also professes some bafflement on the basics. He told an interviewer from Der Spiegel, in a piece translated and posted on Salon, that the magazine still commands rates five times greater than those on Wired.com (for newspapers it’s more like ten to one).
 
Why? Print ads are “better-integrated, better-looking,” Anderson said. “They’re big, full-page, beautiful photography. In many ways they are content.” Conversely, “I don’t think we have discovered the perfect online advertising vehicle yet.”
I have written twice in the last month about how The Ann Arbor News stopped printing, now replaced with a new, “like nothing you’ve ever seen before” Web site, AnnArbor.com. The site is indeed a big break from the look of a typical newspaper’s. Ads, like the news content, are mostly text and stacked. They are displayed among the content on the home page as well as under a “Deals & More” heading. Users can vote on the ads of most interest, and those votes are displayed.
 
Like much else on the site, this struck me as just odd. But given the middling-to-worse performance of most newspaper sites, it is hard to argue with the Ann Arbor crew that now is the time, as they used to say on Monty Python, for something completely different.

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