Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

The Stench of Online Display

It’s not a secret; I’m not a big fan of the way that display advertising is done online. It’s perhaps not that surprising considering what we do but even outside of that, given the ever decreasing click-through rates and the fact that most marketeers would themselves freely admit that even they don’t engage with or frankly even notice banners most of the time, I find it mystifying why advertisers invest such gigantic sums into the medium.

But that’s not constructive is it... it’s all very easy for me to criticise so allow me if you will to tell you what’s wrong with display and why.

First of all in terms of what’s wrong, it’s quite simple, there’s far too much of it! Your typical web-page could have 3 ad positions on it, a banner a skyscraper and an MPU all sitting around 3-400 words of text. Quite simply this is excessive. The ratio of advertising to content is all out of whack, for example, whilst typing this up I took a screen grab of a random page from one of my favourite sites: FHM.com, I hate to pick on them because it’s a great site and they are by no means the worst but check this out: Above the fold on a 1024x768 page the content of the page itself takes up 195930 pixels whereas the two advertising positions take up a whopping 143340 pixels, 42% of the combined area. To put this into context, let’s compare this to TV where currently advertisers are restricted to only 7 minutes of advertising per hour or 11%. Of course FHM would quite rightly say that the page extends for the user to scroll down and they’d be right, but guess what... at that point you can’t see the adverts any more, which renders them at best an enormous waste of bandwidth.

So... why is too much advertising a problem? Well this has been one that I’ve been struggling to find a way to articulate for a while but I think I’ve finally found a way. The problem is the smell.
When I was about 12 I went on a horse-riding trip with my school for a week and several things stand out in my mind from that trip including playing strip poker with the girls who were teaching us to ride and getting a stiffy when Debbie (Gardiner?) sat on my bed one night, much to her amusement. Unfortunately though the thing that sticks in my mind the most was the smell as we were arriving, I distinctly remember gagging and wondering how the hell I was going to stand the stench all week, it was simply overpowering. However, within a matter of minutes of getting off the bus it wasn’t a problem anymore, my brain had completely filtered out the smell, from that point on I don’t ever recall having been bothered by it.

It’s like this with online ads, they’re so overpowering that our brains learn their language and simply filter them out. It’s perhaps not surprising then that Google Adwords are more successful, the ads look like content so our brains can’t so easily filter them out, but that’s not going to work for everything and, if they’re not already, human beings will eventually learn to filter out Google’s minimal visual style too. No. Good advertising needs to be a fart. Something different that stands out from the content to which it’s attached not an endless drone of background noise. It needs to be the exceptional both in its creativity and in the regularity of exposure. Regardless of how many times the internet industry invent new formats, metrics and buzz-words, the current practice of bombarding users will simply never ever work.
So... what needs to change?

Well for a start everyone needs to cut-down on their ad-positions, hopefully this will happen naturally as demand for display continues to decrease, last year was down, apparently this year is looking even less promising and it’ll be interesting to see the figures when they’re released in the next few weeks. But there’s more to it than that. I think the whole mechanism of buying impressions is severely flawed. For example, the other day I was searching for a hardcore DNS provider, I looked high and low but I couldn’t find anyone who ticked all my boxes. Then, on an article on some random site somewhere I noticed an advert for such a service, unfortunately this was just after I’d clicked through to another page and when I clicked back it had been replaced by another irrelevant advert. How frustrating. Rewind to the good old magazine and this wouldn’t be an issue, if I remembered an advert I’d simply flick back a page and there it’d be, magic!

So, maybe I sound like an old fogey but I’d like to see a return to the days of proper media sales where I could buy an advert on a relevant page indefinitely, sponsor it if you will. For example, right now I know for a fact that there’s an article on Revolution about online games in which I’m quoted. If it was possible to do I’d absolutely love to sponsor that page, have a nice Kempt banner on it and get all the link-love back from it. But alas, it’s not possible. The best I could hope for is to buy banner impressions around the site or maybe the channel, meaning that 99% of the impressions will be on pages that are completely unrelated to what I do. There have to be better ways to do it?

To answer my own question there already are: for example Advergame campaigns such as the ones that Kempt produce. Advergames work in a similar way to sponsorship or sometimes product placement and are phenomenally popular, in the last four or five years that we’ve been working with the medium I don’t think I’ve ever seen one receive less than a million visits and the biggest trafficking game we’ve ever seen was King of Defenders which has to date received over 52 million visits. In the context of this piece its popularity isn’t actually the most important factor though, perhaps more important are two other things that are typical of an Advergame:
  1. The brand is generally incorporated in a sympathetic manner and is effectively permanent.
  2. The ratio of brand message to content is generally relatively low.
“So what” you might say...” why is this important?” well because of the effect that this has. These days on a typical display advertising campaign you might consider yourself lucky to get a click-through rate of 0.5%, in fact that’s probably generous. But with a game we typically see 10-15% sometimes higher. Why? Well the key factor in my opinion is politeness. Display advertising is rude, it barges in all over the place, it’s like a drunken gatecrasher at a birthday party, it’s loud, it shouts a lot and in the worst case (expanding banners, pre-rolls and overlays) it’s just vomited all over your living room. And guess what, people don’t like it! Advergames by contrast setup a fair value exchange, the user gets something that they desire (a game to play) and just like any other form of entertainment if they have a good experience then they feel positively towards the entertainer, in this case the brand that sponsored it.

Okay, I can hear you saying it: “games aren’t going to work for everything are they?” This is true but there are other options: I’m sure video viral producers will do great things once they manage to wean themselves off the 30-60 second ad format, responsible contribution to forums can also be a great way to engage your desired audience and there’s always advertorial but realistically none of these are going to replace display advertising completely. How therefore do we make display advertising work?

A number of years back I met Alex Tew of Million Dollar Homepage fame at an awards do, it was just after MDH became really big and he’d made the bulk of his money. He was a guest of our clients, shared our table and I had quite a nice chat with him later on that evening (I think, I was pretty hammered at the time). We talked over the success of MDC and what he might do next, I offered the benefit of my opinion and some ideas which to this day I’m still gutted he didn’t follow up on, I’m hoping that maybe someone else will.

In my opinion there were two remarkable things about the million dollar homepage: The first was the spectacle of it. Although vaguely similar things had been done before the genius of MDH lay in its simplicity and audacity, it was genuinely new and therefore it spread like wildfire around the internet. But you can’t really replicate that, you have to think of something new and that takes real skill or perhaps luck. However, beneath the spectacle there was something else, something truly remarkable about its proposition. When you bought your pixel on MDH, it was yours for at least five years (I’m sure it used to be ten) which in internet terms is effectively permanent and therefore it only took half a brain cell to work out that it was worth buying in, the page was famous, everyone was talking about it, it would go down in internet history and you could have a permanent piece of the action. You just couldn’t lose.

My suggestion to Alex was therefore that he should focus on the latter and come out with an advertising product/agency that worked on the same basis, which would allow people to sponsor a page – an article or something that’s relevant to their product or objectives, permanently.

It would work fairly simply, for instance taking my earlier example of revolution each article or page on their site would have a simple sponsor’s box of about 160x200 pixels in size – enough room for a small logo and a little bit of blub about the company concerned presented in a similar style to the article in order to communicate the relevance to the reader and therefore increase attention on it.

This would put the creativity back into media planning and buying, buyers would need to understand what kind of content the advertiser needs to be associated with and then seek it out even, as is increasingly talked about, commission the content specifically for the purpose of hanging the brand message on in a similar way you would with a piece of advertorial. It would bring editorial and ad-sales teams back together (the two are often far too separate and seem to be working against each other sometimes) and most importantly, if we got rid of all the other crap, would truly deliver results for the advertiser.

Current Page on Revolution:

Kempt Sponsored:

Sadly Alex didn’t do that and I don’t want to belittle what he did in any way, the guy made a shit-load of cash in a very short space of time and he should be congratulated for that. But I think if he’d followed MDH with something like I describe, he’d have made a lot more than a million bucks and more importantly, he might have been the saviour of display advertising as we know it.

Oh well, maybe one day the industry will sort itself out, I do hope so, but in the mean time we’ll keep plugging away with Advergames, Widgets, Facebook apps and all manner of other engaging forms of branded content and count ourselves lucky.