Keeping one step ahead

Despite the great opportunities for advertisers online, they are finding that they have to contend with consumers who are recognising traditional forms of ads and learning to ignore them. By Martin Croft

It is becoming increasingly difficult for marketers to use traditional online display advertising successfully – if you can use the word “traditional” about a communications technique which is barely 15 years old.

The biggest factor reducing the impact of banner advertising on the internet is the growing power of the user. Online advertising, as with almost all forms of new media marketing, is fundamentally a “pull” medium, not a “push” one.

Furthermore, consumers viewing websites increasingly dismiss old-style display ads – assuming, that is, that they see them at all. Indeed, “banner blindness” (the propensity of web users to ignore anything that looks like an ad) is now so well recognised that website designers strongly advise against the use of anything that looks like a banner ad for editorial purposes.

Banner blindness is not a new phenomenon – the research that identified it dates back to 1998. Over the ten years since it was identified, online advertising specialists have effectively come up with two solutions to the problem.

The first is to make the display ads so compelling that they cannot be ignored. At first, this was achieved by increasing the font size, changing the colours and adding movement (simple animations at first, later much more complex using Flash or similar). But then users just began assuming that anything in a box with big fonts, colours and animated images was an ad, and blanking them.

The next step was to make the ads break out of the box – quite literally. Hence the development of expanding ads which get bigger when the cursor rolls over them, animated ads where the animation moves around on the actual page, overlays, page takeovers and a whole range of techniques.

The latest iteration of the attempt to make the display ad more interesting is to make them interactive – for example, to include a form which users start to fill in, in the display ad box, before they get taken to another website.

Jamie Riddell of digital agency Cheeze says: “What we haven’t been seeing a lot of is people using banners more intelligently. The old style banner ad process would be: see the ad, click on the ad, go to the site, start filling in a form. But if you’re advertising mortgages, for example, there’s no reason why you can’t start asking the questions you need to ask to qualify the applicant in the banner.”

For example, integrated ad agency The Gate recently created a campaign for Investec where a live RSS feed was embedded within an ad running on the Reuters UK Business and Finance home page in May. With the message of “It takes real talent to keep you in front”, the creative changed hourly using the Reuters Business and Finance live RSS news feed to create a dynamic link between the news page content that the advertising is being displayed in and the advertising itself.

Branded content 

There is another way to overcome the problems with banner blindness: and that is to move away from using display ads at all, in favour of sponsored pages or microsites or branded entertainment, which can take the form of a game, a free download or a piece of audio or video that can be viewed on a site. Indeed, many of the widgets and apps (applications) that have become so popular are effectively branded content.

Dan McDevitt, sales director of specialist digital sales house Woot Media, argues: “There is a limit to the impact and involvement you’re going to get out of banner advertising. If you go for the standard sizes, then you’ll be just another piece of the wallpaper.”

Instead, McDevitt argues that marketers need to be looking at direct brand involvement with the content that appears on a site. “At its most basic, that may mean putting a brand’s logo on a site; and it goes all the way up to producing advertiser funded content that’s relevant to the user – the brand just gets pulled along.”

Woot Media has been involved in a number of such deals, including a 12-part series of animated webisodes for T-Mobile (see box), an animated cartoon series for Cadbury and a “Guide to Intelligent Living” for Toyota.

Another big brand which has opted for providing branded content with real added value is Vodafone, which worked with website HowTo.tv to create four short films to help potential small business customers understand mobile and remote working.

Bryony Clow of Vodafone’s business-to-business media relations team was involved with the project. She says: “We deliberately opted for a professional presenter, but not too much detail as we thought that might date too quickly. We put them up on HowTo.tv, where we got 10,000 hits, and also seeded them on other sites, where we got another 40,000 hits. We have found that if you target content like this properly and distribute it through the right channels, you can show empathy with the customer, show you’re giving something back and get a good response.”

It’s not TV 

Craig Lawrie, head of digital at integrated agency Billington Cartmell, warns that marketers have to make sure the content they create is relevant and useful – they can’t just run TV ads online.

Lawrie says: “It’s not about lifting the TV ad and putting it in to the online space. TV ads attract a passive audience. The sit-up, active audience isn’t going to be prepared to watch them, especially if they are pre-rolls for videos which are typically just five minutes long. Think beyond the pre-roll. Many users click away from the sites they are on when they appear. There are many other video opportunities available including mid-roll, in-banner as well as the overlay units featured on YouTube.”

But Lawrie agrees that marketers have to move away from passive display ads in boxes. He points out that “85% of the EU internet population is now on broadband so users are expecting more engaging, more stimulating and more entertaining online experiences. This isn’t just restricted to the page content of the site the user is on. Audiences expect the accompanying ads to be relevant and as entertaining as the ads they see on TV.”

Jamie Riddell of Cheeze sums it up: “If it’s bought right and delivers the right message in the right place, then it will work.”

Free texts and interactive ‘webisodes’

T-Mobile has an offer where it gives customers free texts all weekend if they add £10 credit on a Friday. The mobile giant wanted to communicate this to influential UK 16to 24-year-olds.

One of Woot Media’s client is cult animation site www.weebls-stuff.com, which has an audience of over 500,000 16to 24-year-olds every month. The site carries a number of highly popular animated series, including ‘On the Moon’, which has been viewed over 6 million times, despite episodes only launching about every 2 months.

Together with Mediacom, Woot Media devised and produced a prequel series to ‘On the moon’, with a new chapter airing every Friday. Visitors to weebls-stuff.com could download the episodes free. Every episode was interactive, so fans could decide the fates of the characters.

A total of 12 interactive ‘webisodes’ were aired on successive Fridays between October and December 2007. Woot Media had guaranteed a minimum amount of media exposure as well as 300,000 gameplays. In the end, the webisodes were played 1.2 million times on weebls-stuff.com alone, with hundreds of thousands of unique users.

Online Marketing & Media ’08 

Marketing Week is once again supporting Online Marketing & Media ’08. It’s your opportunity to learn, discover and be inspired by how you can integrate online marketing and media into your campaigns to achieve message stand out. The Show features over 70 exhibitors; a conference programme featuring speakers from leading companies including Dell, Microsoft Digital Solutions, Lovefilm, Sky, MySpace and many more, 40 free workshops, the Google University and much more! 

Where: Business Design Centre, London 

When: 24-25 June 2008 

Visitor enquiries: 0870 744 4984 

Exhibitor enquiries: 020 7970 4453 

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