Why online creative stinks so badly

(Originally published in iMediaconnection, March 2009) by Eric Picard

Recently Randy Rothenberg, CEO of the IAB, released a manifesto for the improvement of creative online. He and I have discussed this a few times, and I’m right there with him: God, we suck so badly. It’s an issue that has existed since the beginning of our industry, and despite all good work that’s been done by individual creative teams for individual advertisers, we still are a sucky environment for showing ads.

The size issue
I have lots of opinions on what has driven this, but the primary one is that our ad formats are simply too small, so we’ll start there. The historical background is simple on this: When the web was invented, people were accessing it over very low-speed modems. Every image was a big deal, and page load speeds were incredibly slow. So the physical size of banner ads was limited on multiple fronts.

As bandwidth increased and average resolutions increased, larger formats were approved. But it’s been six years since the industry adopted larger ad formats via the Universal Ad Package in 1992. Since then, we’ve increased bandwidth significantly — with much higher broadband adoption — and screen resolutions have once again increased significantly. Additionally, we now have a large number of widescreen monitors on the market, with the standards moving to the aspect ratio of HD content rather than SD television content.

It’s a negligibly easy thing to detect screen resolution and connection speed. Those of us who were pioneers in the rich media advertising space were doing this kind of thing way back in the late ’90s. There’s absolutely no reason that as an industry we can’t offer much larger ad formats to the market.

The formats I would suggest we look at are a 600 x 500 (twice the size of a 300 x 250) and a renewed push for standardizing the 300 x 600 ad format, which was previously named the “half page ad” (but which is hardly a half-page ad when used as a skyscraper on a modern widescreen monitor.

I’d also suggest that we as an industry lock down to a new “brand session” model, where we offer an advertiser the ability to reach each visitor to a website with a one-to-three impression brand exposure session. (This would be adding the concept of frequency to the online impression model.) All ad serving systems offer some degree of frequency capping, meaning that we could simply limit the number of these large-format ads that are shown to a visitor during a single website session. The session would start with one large format ad, then be followed by two of the current UAP ad formats that are standard in the industry today.

Interactivity issues
The other major reason our advertising creatives are so bad has to do with a lack of interactivity. The ad industry has simply not embraced the concept of interactivity — despite having the ability to build interactive ads since the late 1990s.

The thing that makes me sad (yes, it actually does make me sad) is that at Bluestreak, back in the day, we were building ads that would still be seen as “groundbreaking” today from a creative standpoint. But from a functionality standpoint, we launched expanding banners in 1999 that could transact within the banner. We rolled out rich media interactivity and a design tool to build rich media ads. Designers could build interactive ad experiences with all sorts of “bolt on” capabilities, like video, audio, games, etc. Every capability we created in Java back in those days can be fully replicated today with Flash, and there are literally thousands (maybe even tens of thousands) of designers who are quite expert with Flash.

So we have every opportunity to build better ads, but nobody is doing it. I’d love to understand why. Essentially, Flash is used by the vast majority of advertisers to build “fancy animation” that is only a little more advanced than the animated GIF ads that began to surface in the early days of online advertising.

And size is not the issue. With expanding ad units available from every major rich media vendor today, giving audiences the ability to interact with ads in a space large enough to create an emotional connection is quite simple. Although rich media vendors are doing a great job when advertisers are willing to sign up for an “advanced campaign,” the overall percentage of ads that fall into this category is quite low. Frequently, the goal of the advertiser falls more toward direct response than delivering an emotional brand message.

Even if we look at a direct response model, advertisers are not taking full advantage of the medium. Back in the day at Bluestreak, we routinely found that conversion rates were extremely high for actions like newsletter subscriptions, contest sign-ups, requests for product information, or even, in some cases, sales of inexpensive products. I’ve confirmed with a few folks in the last year or two that they see similar conversion rates for ads that push the conversion action into the ad rather than requiring a redirect to a website. So if we saw this back in the late ’90s, why are so few advertisers making use of this kind of functionality?

Conclusion 
I do firmly believe that increasing the size of the creative formats is the primary issue to resolve. But adoption of rich media and interactivity is another area where we should see major adoption. Every ad on the internet should give users the option to expand the ad, request more information, watch a video demo of the product, or even to purchase the product right from the ad. I had this vision for our industry in 1997 when we first started building the technology behind Bluestreak’s now defunct E*Banner product. And the idea that more than 10 years later the industry still isn’t there is not just disappointing. It’s sad.

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