Eye tracking studies

23 April 2013

Now You See ‘Em… Well, No You Don’t: Why Banner Ads are Still Big Business Despite the Blindness

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Early Banner Ad Creator…

The biggest reason why banner ads don’t work? People simply don’t see them. We marketers call it “banner blindness.”

Back in 2007, researcher Jakob Nielsen conducted some eye-tracking studies that showed banner ads (sometimes called “display ads”) being ignored (see featured image above). All that gray area on the right? Yeah, that’s where the ads are. The only banner ads that got attention were annoying ones, which hurt the advertisers more than they helped.

The result: clickthrough rates on banner ads are laughably low – close to 0.05%.

No, I didn’t say 5%; I said 0.05%, as in 1/2,000 — and even that may be an overestimation. As an advertiser, you might get better results by flinging your business cards out your car window. At least the cop who tickets you will notice, and the littering fine will cost less than a banner campaign.

So the website-ad sales reps changed their tune: they now claim that banner ads have “never” been about clickthroughs, and that they were “always” about “branding” and “awareness.” (Insert laugh track here.)

Of course, you immediately see the problem with that, right? “See” being the operative term here… If the ads aren’t seen, how can they create branding and awareness?

In fact, online display ads are so ineffective, when Twitter recently tried to sell me ads on their platform, they EMAILED me. Hmmm, that tells me I should look more into email marketing…

So, if online banners don’t work, why are online ad sales hitting record sales, year after year after year? Nearly a decade after Nielsen’s damning study, banner ads are still big business.

It’s simple: banner ads are cheap and easy to sell.

Imagine that you’re a marketing consultant or agency, and you have a client who wants to run ads. At first, you’re flabbergasted, so you summon all your colleagues: “Quick, get a camcorder! We have to record this! A client actually wants to buy ads! A client actually realizes that [intlink id=”5807″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]relying on social media and word-of-mouth and permission marketing is a recipe for disaster[/intlink]! They’re going to advertise, advertise, advertise!”

After you finish draining the champagne bottles, you have to figure out what kind of advertising to recommend. There are millions of options, of course, but compare these two pitches:

  • Option A: We’ll spend just a few thousand dollars placing banner ads on social networks and targeted websites, because that’s where your customers – particularly young people – are spending time. After all, traditional media is dead, right? The banner ads will take our designers less than an hour to whip up some options, and then you’ll pay only a few dollars for thousands of views. We’ll get real-time data on which ads are working and who’s engaging with them, either by viewing, hovering, or actually clicking through. This data will help us improve the ads on the fly, and we can even test a variety of ads with real customers, all inexpensively. Shall we do a test run?
  • Option B: We’ll place one ad on TV. Uh, yeah, just one. And, no, it’s not targeted — the TV show reaches a broad audience. The 30-second time slot will cost $5,000,000 alone, but we’ll need to spend at least another $1,00,000 on making the ad, since high production values are critical. That should take a few months from concept to execution, unless we implement a rush, which will cost a little more. No, we won’t be able to do a live test, but we can run some focus groups, which will take more time and money and not really prove anything, since focus groups are usually wrong. As for performance data, we’ll have to accept the network estimate on how many people actually saw the ad, though we could run an expensive survey afterwards. Want to give it a shot? We’ll need 50% up front…

Doesn’t sound like much of a choice, does it? Clients will gravitate toward Option A, because it’s easy, cheap, and sounds oh so 2.0. Meanwhile the second choice sounds absurdly expensive, completely inflexible, and oh so 20th century.

EXCEPT with Option B we’re talking about the Super Bowl, of course, which delivers all this:

  • Massive Awareness: Over 100 million viewers who are actually paying attention to the ads, talking about the ads online (there’s your buzz), even voting for their favorite ads on YouTube, where they’ll actually search for and watch your ad again. Yes, again.
  • Influencer Outreach: All the major media, marketing and trade publications — the editors, writers, bloggers. and other influencers you need to reach — are also watching every single ad and reviewing them and providing additional publicity. (Buzz, buzz, and more buzz.)
  • Branding: Smart, creative Super Bowl ads can strongly shape a brand — something that not even the most creative banner ads can do.
  • Data: As for data, you can add a compelling call-to-action with other integrated media (a unique URL, a texting number, a discount code, etc.) to your ad and start counting.

Try to deliver all that, oh banner ads.

(No, I don’t make Super Bowl spots, though I wish I did.)

Risky? Of course. But everything in business is a risk. If we wanted a sure thing, we would have become chiropractors at a martial arts studio. But an expensive ad that gets reactions is better than a cheap ad that no one even notices.

Of course, not everyone can afford a Super Bowl ad. But a smart agency can help their clients find more cost-effective options in other traditional media.

Now, don’t go me wrong. I love the Internet. I’ve been working on websites for nearly 20 years. And I believe strongly in SEO and content marketing. Even social media has its uses, primarily in finding your most enthusiastic customers and in building relationships with influencers. I also think rich-media ads — such as a properly positioned game or video — can generate solid results.

But as long as banner ads are easy to sell to clients, we’ll keep on seeing them… even if none of us is ever really seeing them.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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