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Relevance vs. Banner Blindness: A Battle Worth Fighting

Posted by Dave Zinman on October 15th, 2012 at 9:21 am

Let’s start with an inconvenient truth: banner blindness is a bigger problem in the online advertising industry than we are willing to acknowledge.  That’s because banner blindness isn’t limited to banners – it’s pervasive across most display advertising. And unless you own Google.com, display advertising is pretty much the meal ticket that pays for free online content.

So what’s caused the epidemic of banner blindness, and how can we fix it?

To start, the root causes of the problem are threefold:

Tonnage: This is the most obvious problem, and one that’s been identified time and time again – but it persists still. Frequently, publishers just put too many ads on a page in an effort to generate more revenue. Ultimately, it’s counterproductive. The more ads on a page, the less we notice them, and the less likely we are to click. It doesn’t serve anyone – least of all the online advertising industry.

Irrelevance:  It’s rare that display ads are relevant to your current online activities. There may be some useful retargeting and behaviorally targeted ads, but they’re often quickly capped out and likely to be buried under an avalanche of ads for dating sites, online universities and “one weird secret.”  Consumers aren’t likely to click on ads that aren’t useful or relevant to them.

Lack of Intent:  Beyond irrelevance, display ads typically don’t correlate to a user’s current intent – what someone is doing at that moment.  Search advertising changed the game by introducing real-time intent to the advertising landscape.  The targeting we use for display advertising may accurately identify intent, but it is often the intent from yesterday or last week. Even in the case of the retargeted ad, the intent is not close to real time. I may have been looking at power washer reviews yesterday, but several things could have changed since I saw the ad.  I might have bought a power washer already, or I might have decided I don’t have the cash to buy one right now.  I also might be on a personal finance site now, trying to figure out what a diversified portfolio looks like and I’m no longer willing to indulge the power washer advertiser.  Address my intent today and show me a Schwab ad, please!

So how can we cure banner blindness and raise engagement metrics? Relevance is the obvious answer. When we can bring greater relevance to advertising, surely we’ll have solved the problem.  Unfortunately, while that’s the easy answer, it isn’t enough.

Real time intent: If we can target intent in display with the accuracy and immediacy of search engine marketing, we’ll be onto something.  Well, guess what: We can. Contextual targeting, somewhat forgotten in the rush to apply Big Data to vast pools of standard ad units, can work amazingly well. A contextual engine can discover intent based on the content of a page, and serve ads only when that intent and matches an advertiser offer.  If the intent signal isn’t strong or the offer doesn’t match, then the ad isn’t served. It’s just that simple!

Cut the Chaff: Yes, relevance does factor in in a big way. Obviously a contextual engine will support relevance, but there’s more to the story. Publishers really need to do their part to combat irrelevancy. If publishers set a high minimum eCPM floor to screen out irrelevant, low value ads, only the best, most pertinent placements will surface.  Let’s face it, low eCPM ads are primarily responsible for irrelevant tonnage, anyway.  And they certainly don’t contribute greatly to the bottom line.  If publishers keep the junk ads off their sites, they also raise their own image.  When I was VP & GM of Display for Yahoo! in North America, we eliminated provocative dating site ads and distasteful teeth whitening ads.  The short term revenue impact was negative, but we did it because we believed that it would improve our user experience.

Think beyond the banner: While the better targeting is necessary, it’s not sufficient.  Banner blindness will continue as long as we rely so heavily on traditional IAB display placements.  It’s time to put greater emphasis on finding non-traditional placement that breaks the blindness cycle.  We can get creative leveraging logical but perhaps unexpected areas on the page.  We can integrate ads into content. There are so many possibilities.  And when the intent is so clear and the offer so relevant, the advertising should be more interruptive.  If the match isn’t as strong, then diminish the role of advertising on the page.

There’s enough technology available to target intent and develop creative new ad units that will help publishers monetize, help advertisers drive measurable results, and enhance the consumer experience.  New publishing and advertising platforms will allow us to zoom in on context and ensure ads are really relevant to users – in the moment, based on their current intent.  If we can focus a little more on relevance and a little less on standard IAB units, we can cure banner blindness.

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