Network: Web Design: Improve the Net by banning the banner

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The Independent Culture
IT WILL come as little surprise to anyone who uses the Web regularly that the click-through rate for banner advertisements has fallen below .05 per cent from 2 per cent in 1997. That is, only around 0.5 per cent of all banner ads placed on Web pages ever get clicked on. That's a lot of wasted pixels on the screen.

Of course, some of this drop might be simply explained by the fact that websites, to increase profits from ad revenue, are pumping more and more ads on to a single page. Thus there are more ads being served for you not to click on.

I have yet to meet a person who truly enjoys having banner ads on a page. There are those rare banner ads that catch the eye. One might even go so far as to click on the ad, following it through to a Web page enticing you with promises of quality or value. One might then do that rarest of things: actually buy the product the ad was touting. But most paying customers come through to sites in other ways, such as search engines or by word of mouth.

For the most part, banner ads take up precious screen space and deliver little in the way of content. They often look as if they have been crammed into the page design like someone trying to stuff a size 6 foot into a size 9 shoe. They litter the page flashing and gaping, trying to attract the visitor's eye like a carnival ride at the fun fair while the visitor is trying to concentrate on reading what they actually came to the site to see.

Still, banner ads persist. Despite their low ratings and low appeal, they make up a majority stake in the $2bn online advertising industry. It's as if the only two groups who haven't realised how ineffective they are are the people buying the ad space and the people selling the ad space (although I have my suspicions about that second group).

A recent study of marketing executives conducted by Forrester Research and reported on by Internet World (www.iw.com/ print/1999/06/28/ecomm/19990628- banner.html) found banner ads are the most often used but the least effective way to attract visitors to a website. So why are they still around if they don't work?

Tom Hyland of the Internet Advertising Bureau (www.iab.net), says: "Banners have proved to be the most effective direct marketing tool, producing quantifiable units to which an advertiser can apply readable metrics and make real conclusions with real numbers about the effectiveness of the campaign."

In other words, you can measure the results directly. Even if the results are bad and the real world evidence is against them, marketers would rather have predictable numbers for well-established marketing concepts than experimental techniques that may or may not do a better job and are hard to measure.

The fact is that banner ads grew out of concepts developed in print and television media that simply do not apply to the Web. Modern advertisements are not about showing the quality of a product, but about showing how the product can improve your lifestyle.

So, for instance, rather then telling you that a margarine tastes great and has no fat, the ad will show you how much better your sex life would be if you only ate that margarine. You can do this type of message in a TV spot or magazine advertisement. But banner ads give you only a tiny space in which to make your argument and they are not very good for conveying complex messages.

TV and print ads are basically passive - just sit back and watch to have your consuming habits changed - and banner ads require positive action for them to be of any effect. No click, no message, no sale.

What will take the place of the banner ad? People still have to make a living from the Web and to do that they need some way of generating revenue. Whether you are a small site dispensing advice on furniture refinishing or a major metropolitan newspaper with an online version, you need some way to pay for all of the expensive equipment, expensive Web designers and expensive daily upkeep of the site.

There are two methods showing a lot of promise:

Sponsorship: Rather than advertising, the site is sponsored by one or a few interested groups who then have the site branded with their logo. For the price of one TV ad campaign, a company can set up a website with content created especially for their target audience, who then associate that brand with quality information. Remember that brand loyalty is the ultimate goal.

Affiliate Programmes: Don't advertise, recommend. In an associate programme, a larger retailer will allow smaller sites to link directly to products and give them a percentage of any sales generated by visitors coming from those links. Amazon.com is the best example of how this works. On my site, I recommend particular books about Web design and other topics and link those recommendations directly to pages on Amazon.com. If someone reads the recommendation and follows the link and buys the book I get 5 per cent of the book price for generating that sale.

There is no one solution to the problem of how to generate revenue from a website and new methods of revenue generation as yet undreamt of might be just around the corner.

But by sticking to the dead-horse of banner ads the Web will never evolve to find its own way of doing business.

Jason Cranford Teague is the author of `DHTML For the World Wide Web'. If you have questions for him, you can find an archive of his column at http://www. webbedenvironments.com. You can e-mail comments or queries jason@webbedenvironments. com

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