What Makes People Click:
Advertising on the Web
by Jim Sterne
The Buck Spangled Banner
Little did Hotwired know when it started taking ads in October, 1994, that it would be setting a de facto standard. Banner shape, size, and location were heretofore unknown and unconsidered attributes until they hit Hotwired. Since this was the only example, it was much easier to go with the flow than reinvent the deal.
The Net is nothing if not inventive, creative, and anarchic. People are still experimenting with different shapes, sizes, and types of ads, not to mention different business models. But the banner has become the focus of Internet advertising for the time being and it's where your focus should be as well.
It is the banner's lot in life to grab people's attention. A range of banner types have been tried out on the Web with varying degrees of success. Some are explored here, including animated banners, Java banners, and streaming banners that can process orders where they sit. But before banners get too unique and too out of control, there are those who would impose standards. Oops, excuse me, "suggest voluntary guidelines." But that's not really a bad thing after all.
The banner is the Web's mainstay because it is simple to explain and easy to understand. You can equate it with print advertising in an instant; rules of frequency and reach are easily applied; you can buy banners by the thousand; they take up a specific amount of space. Well, almost.
Picture if you will, thousands of Web sites developed by people from thousands of backgrounds all playing with the same colors of Playdough. There is no limit to the size, shape, style, or iteration of the final creation. The limit, as has been true to form on the Web in general, has been imagination. This is part of the glory of the World Wide Web; everybody has an instant soapbox; everybody is an artist; everybody is a publisher.
When the word spread that there were those who would bind this new-born banner to a set size and shape, the outcry was swift and indignant. Take the creative power out of the hands of the people and stuff it into a mold? Make everybody conform? Go wash your mouth out with soap and pray to the God of Individuality that you won't be struck down in your prime by a server flung from a passing truck!
Of course, this was the same reaction heard when it was suggested that the Internet might be a good place for commerce. Blasphemy! Sacrilege! The Internet is the realm of the researcher, the student, and the Ph.D. It is the home of the high thinker and the seat of pure reason. There's no place here for dirty and profane mercantilism!
I am reminded of the graffiti I saw on a recent trip to the Grand Canyon. Amidst wistful suggestions that we "Give the Canyon Back to the Indians" was a rather startling screed in angry lettering several inches high insisting, "RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE!!" Under that, in a clear and spare hand, was written, "Silly boy, you're sitting on the machine."
As commerce was inevitable on the Internet, so too is banner standardization. The value of pressing your favorite color of Playdough into a mold was not lost on kids all over the world. And the value of Web banners as interchangeable parts has not been wasted on banner space sellers or banner creators.
When Web sites are built by two guys in a garage who are selling ad space for whatever they think they can get that week, then the world belongs to the creative types and the free- thinkers. When Web advertising becomes a sector of commerce, standards help grease the wheels of industry. Buying an ad on the Ashland High School DECA Page (http://www.grizzly.ashland.or.us) (see Figure 3.1) for $5 a month is a shrewd buy for those selling Oregonean grizzly bear t-shirts. And I'm sure the students in Ashland High's marketing classes will be quite flexible with your desires for a full page ad, a vertical ad, an ad that paints the background of the whole page, or an audio ad.
Fig. 3.1 Ashland High's banner standards might be a bit more flexible...
But if your plans include reaching a tad further than high schoolers in the home of the Ashland Shakespeare Festival, you might have to conform to a common size. People who serve thousands of banners each day, like Yahoo! (see Figure 3.2), rely on automation to serve up banners on-the-fly. They don't create a static page that includes a specific ad. Instead, they have the computer generate each page dynamically, as users click links. Every page has a set spot for ads and every ad fits that spot.
Fig. 3.2 ...Yahoo!'s automated banner server...
When ads are served from a common database like ad network DoubleClick (www. doubleclick.com) (see Figure 3.3), then your ads must fit their needs exactly. After all, they're serving ads to over 70 sites. All of those sites have to conform to the DoubleClick banner specifications as do all of the advertisers. The alternative would be chaos.
Standards also Benefit the Advertiser
I don't advocate banner standardization solely for the benefit of those who want to commoditize ads as fast and as economically possible. There's also value for the person creating the ad.
Let's say you wanted to advertise on the ESPNET SportsZone (espnet.sportszone.com), and the Time-Warner Pathfinder (pathfinder.com), and USA Today (www.usatoday.com), and the Tennis Server (www.tennisserver.com), and the Internet Underground Music Archive (www.iuma.com). And let's say they each had their own regulation size and shapes. You'd have to create five different ads. You'd have to have your graphic artist alter the layout, which would alter the design, which would alter the message for each venue. With an industry standard in place, you can create one ad that runs across the board.
Not only do you save on graphic design expenses, you can more accurately track which location is best suited to your message. If all your ads are thematically the same, then the results you get must be related to their placement. Change too many variables from ad to ad and your ability to measure effectiveness gets muddied pretty quickly. Fig. 3.3 ...or DoubleClick's network of over 70 sites.
The Standards Bearers
The two groups to watch are CASIE and the IAB. They've taken on the mantle of protectors of the realm. The IAB's charter is made clear on their Web site (www.edelman.com/IAB/index.html): The Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) (www.edelman.com/IAB) is the only industry association devoted exclusively to promoting the use and effectiveness of advertising on the Internet. General members include companies that are actively engaged in the sales of advertising. The organization membership also consists of companies that support advertising sales activities such as measurement companies, research suppliers, traffic companies and organizations from related industries. However, Doug Weaver, VP of Advertising and Web Publishing for Firefly Network, Incorporated (www.ffly.com), and one of over 180 IAB members, says that the real goal is to find ways to get more people to spend real money on Web advertising. Since members "include companies that are actively engaged in the sales of advertising," it's a very understandable goal.
CASIE is the Coalition for Advertising Supported Information and Entertainment (www.commercepark.com/AAAA/casie/index.html), a joint committee between the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers. The mission is to "Create an environment where consumers have the broadest possible array of high-quality media options at the lowest possible cost. To accomplish this, we believe that advertising revenue must be a key funding source for information and entertainment in the evolving world of media."
CASIE's Key Areas of Focus are stated in its Mission Statement as:
Promote existing advertising-supported entertainment and information services.
2. Encourage providers of new services to rely on advertising as a key funding source.
3. Research and track consumer use and acceptance of new media services.
4. Ensure the adoption of technical standards for hardware and software by industry and government that facilitate: a) delivery of programming and advertising that allows everyone to `plug and play' on all systems without re-authoring; and b) simple consumer access for programming and advertising.
5. Be proactive and involved with Federal [sic] and state legislation and regulation. Advocate and promote a minimalist approach to the legislation and regulation of telecommunications.
So when these two august bodies come together to spawn a banner-sizing standard, it's an offspring worth noting. On December 10, 1996, that offspring was introduced to the world.
The Official Motivation
According to the joint press release, "The standards were created in response to industry-wide concern about the proliferation of types and sizes of banners which are the most commonly used form of advertising on the Internet today. According to industry estimates, more than 250 different banners are in use."
"The proliferation of banners has created a massive problem for advertisers and their agencies, which sometimes have to create their ads in 50 or more sizes," said Mike Donahue, Senior Vice President, AAAA. "These voluntary guidelines will greatly streamline the advertising production and placement process and contribute to the overall growth of Internet advertising."
Both groups are quick to point out that they are not laying down the law. Moreover, they don't even call it a standard: it's a "voluntary guideline." In a well-practiced dance of political correctness, they point out that the medium is young, there's a lot of experimentation ahead, and they don't want to discourage any other forms of advertising. However, if your canvas of choice is the banner, then they are happy to offer eight typical sizes. Think of it as going to the art or photography supply store. Do you want a frame for an 8x10 or a 10x12?
The Proposed Guidelines
The proposal reads:
PROPOSAL FOR VOLUNTARY MODEL BANNER SIZES
Banners have become a significant means of advertising and source of revenue on the World Wide Web. The number of types of banners and sizes have proliferated. In a recent survey, IAB members stated that this proliferation of banner types and sizes is inefficient and confusing and that identifying a baseline model would result in benefits for both buyers and sellers of advertising on the Web. Advertisers, agencies and media companies have asked the CASIE and the IAB to consider these issues.
In response to requests from the advertising community the Standards and Practices Committee of the IAB with input from CASIE has used market data to examine the full range of banner types, for example, vertical, horizontal, half and button, and sizes currently in use. The Committee has identified the following as the most commonly accepted:
Full Banner with Vertical Navigation Bar
Use of any of these sizes as a model or standard is strictly voluntary. The IAB and CASIE recognize and intend that its member companies and the advertising community remain free to experiment with, use, adopt, and propose other sizes and types of banners. The two groups also recognize that websites which chose to implement these models may wish to do so over a period of several months to allow those who sell space or create banner content to make any adjustments.
Banners are currently the primary form of Internet and interactive advertising. However, the IAB and CASIE encourage the continuing exploration of other advertising models such as interstitial pages, push advertising (including PointCast, Marimba and BackWeb) microsites, web advertorials and sponsored activities
To facilitate the continued growth of the medium and the industry, the Standards & Practices Committee of the IAB plans to convene six conferences during the coming year, three on each coast, to discuss the benefits of voluntary standards or models for emerging formats and to release additional proposals as appropriate. The IAB will continue to work closely with CASIE in fostering these discussions and invites all interested parties to participate.
Take a peek at the leading ad buyer on the Net and you'll see smiles. Microsoft went all out with their promotion of version 3.0 of their Internet Explorer. Those banners were unavoidable. Spread out over 75 of the most popular Web sites, Microsoft had to come up with 180 different banner sizes. Different pages had different spaces and the team in Redmond didn't want to be left out. Their ad agency, Anderson & Lembke, figured Microsoft could have saved $50,000 on the launch alone.
Not slow on the uptake, Microsoft decided to make good on that estimate. Through Anderson & Lembke, they circulated a letter to sites selling advertising warning that standard-sized banners would be an important factor in their media-buying criteria.
"Starting March 1, 1997, Anderson & Lembke will be using these standard banner sizes for all our interactive clients' media plans. Sites which have not adopted these standards will be at a significant disadvantage in the selection process when evaluated against sites who have adopted the standards."
There's plenty of "or else" in that statement and Anderson & Lembke is Microsoft's primary agency. Microsoft has said "frog," and many Web sites breathed a sigh of relief because now they know exactly how high to jump.
Help Is at Hand
Lest you be despondent at the thought of being forced to work with a limited number of pixels and having to spend hours squeezing your creation to fit the mold, there is help on the Web. GIF Wizard Ad-O-Matic (www.raspberryhill.com/gifwiz/adomatic.html) (see Figure 3.4) is out there, waiting to help you turn your artistic masterpiece into a standard banner format.
Fig. 3.4 GIF Wizard Ad-O-Matic will resize your banner for 35 ad formats.
GIF Wizard checks and corrects your banner to meet the right GIF format, width, height, animation prohibitions, transparency prohibitions, and file size restrictions. It will even make sure you comply with the CASIE/IAB guidelines (see Figure 3.5).
Fig. 3.5 GIF Wizard knows how to resize your banner to meet the CASIE/IAB guidelines.
Banner sizes aren't the only standards under discussion. Wouldn't it be nice if you could send information to and from your ad agencies that would be recognized on sight? How about finding which sites are offering ad space for sale? This is a young industry and these questions are just starting to be asked. Suggested answers are floating around in the form of trial balloons waiting for updrafts or pins.
Simple Advertising Management Protocol Aside from having an unfortunate acronym, SAMP (www.focalink.com/home/pp) is described on the Focalink Web site as an "open protocol for communicating Web advertising traffic information, ad materials and performance data." In English, this means being able to communicate with various ad agencies, Web banner makers, and Web sites selling space in a common format.
Jump-started by Focalink Communications and Bellcore (www.bellcore.com), SAMP is intended to ease the process of "sending traffic instructions to sites that specify which ads appear when and where, transferring of actual ad materials, and sending back reports on campaign performance."
The problem they're trying to solve is the aggravation experienced by advertisers when dealing with multiple sites which use multiple ad management systems--a lot of which are home-grown systems. If you can send a banner and the same batch of data about that banner to every site you want to advertise on, you can save a bottle or two of aspirin a month.
Advertising Information File As of April, 1997, the Online Advertising Discussion List had more than 3,800 subscribers, and was growing at a rate of about 40 subscribers per week. It's a fairly lively debate and well worth a look (www.o-a.com). Pondering the issues of how to use technology to make life easier for banners producers and displayers, Mark J. Welch, curator of the astonishingly useful Web Site Banner Advertising: Banner Ad Networks & Brokers page (www.ca-probate.com/comm_net.htm), offered the following:
Date: Wed, 26 Mar 1997 13:58:14 -0800
From: "Mark J. Welch, Esq." <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: ONLINE-ADS>> Proposal: AD-INFO.TXT file (Ad Registries)
I would like to make a humble suggestion: why doesn't someone create a standard list of data and file descriptor for a file of "advertising information" to be maintained at each web site? Thus, when I update the advertising information at my site, I could simply do so by updating the file and then `robots' from each company operating an advertising directory could check my site for that update.
I'd certainly take more interest in providing updates about advertising on my web pages if I could simply update a single file at my site and have a number of services automatically gather that data. I'm sure that hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of web publishers would feel the same way.
The file format should be flexible, so that each vendor could specify optional or required fields for its service (but with no `secret' data available only to one service)--kind of like HTML with meta tags, or SGML.
Of course, if the format were useful, someone would write nifty software utilities to automate many update tasks (such as automatically posting current statistics into the file from a stats program). Indeed, I would expect that the next generation of `web site design' software would automatically generate this file and update it as web publishers add new content to their sites.
This sort of off-the-cuff suggestion has previously spawned new products, new companies, and new industries. No matter where they come from, good ideas about standardization are sure to start showing up fast and furious. Nature abhors a vacuum and industry likes it even less--especially the computer industry. Watch this space.
Regardless of the shape, size, and placement of the banner, standard or otherwise, its goal is the same--grab the attention of the person sitting in front of the screen and engage them.
Continued on next page...
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