Earning Its Place At The Party

SirfsUpConsidering that it’s been nearly 20 years since the world got a look at the first online banner, there’s been lots of progress — not to mention a few zillion skyscrapers, pop-ups and pop-unders. Yet instead of becoming more effective, display advertising is getting weaker, with a flat to declining return on investment for marketers, says Rex Briggs, CEO of research and analytics firm Marketing Evolution. His new book, Sirfs-Up - Catching the Next Wave in Marketing, explains how broken he’s come to regard the promotion-and-advertising model that most marketers start with. Instead, he sees the most effective spending starting with mining customer insights to build brand advocacy, using social media and branded content. (Sirf stands for Spend-to-Impact Response Functions.) 

It’s not that he thinks display doesn’t work. In fact, his research has found it often doesn’t get the credit it should. In one company he analyzed, for example, he found that banner ads that didn’t get clicked on (and thus weren’t counted as effective) often prompted the consumer to type the company’s name into a search engine (usually within the week). Those unclicked display ads led to 7 percent of all sales from search, and 2.2 percent of total sales.

But too often, simple mistakes turn display ads into budget leeches, just one more reason the typical marketer is sending 39 percent of his or her budget down the drain. (The trend isn’t good. In his last book, What Sticks, published in 2006, advertisers were only wasting 37 percent.)

Briggs took some time to tell omma what ails display and what can fix it:

So what’s changing to make display less effective?

Well, it’s not like it’s a new issue. We can trace studies of the effectiveness of display to the very first study I did at HotWired back in 1996. And even before that, we were doing attribution modeling, click- and post-click value analysis in 1995. So we’ve got a lot of years of experience under our belts, and yet some of the fundamentals for our industry are forgotten and lost. And that is contributing to flat to declining roi for display, when it should be getting better and better.
For example, we learned that things like persistent logos, low clutter and clear brand-benefits statements really help display advertising’s effectiveness, and we published that data in What Sticks, back in 2006. But many ads online don’t even follow the persistent logo rule.

And then you open up the trades and read things like Procter & Gamble is doing these massive studies to rediscover the insights it learned years ago on Olay, Herbal Essence and Head & Shoulders, and you kind of go, in Twitter language, “wtf?”

Online digital display advertising can have great roi, but not if the creative doesn’t follow simple rules.

Why do you think that is? Is it just a category marketers don’t police very well?

I think so. I had a humbling experience with this recently. I had my team come up with some digital display ads for my book, and trafficked them through MediaMath, which did a great job. And I delegated it to someone on my team. And when the ad came back, it did not have a persistent image for the book. And we have known that point is important since 1997, when the first iab study was done.

So I asked him to go back, and there was a little bit of a pushback from the creative agency. And I’m like, “Trust me, this is important.” I’ve done so many studies about this, and that I could let it happen gave me a lot of humility!

The point is it doesn’t matter how much research you’ve done, if you don’t set up the process right in the beginning, you won’t get the outcome you expect. What I missed in the process was that I didn’t give a clearer brief. And I suspect a lot of marketers are running into that exact same problem. They need to include some best-practice requirements into the brief itself, so it isn’t a debatable issue, and it’s just considered part of a good design.

What are other problems holding display ads back?

The marketers have the most control over three things — this persistent logo, clutter and clear brand-benefit messages. So this low clutter on the page thing is very important. We know the effectiveness of online advertising is inversely proportionate to the clutter. The more clutter, the less effective. Adding more ads to a page can increase revenue per page, but that lowers the effectiveness on the branding side, because it increases clutter and lowers click-through rates.

And the media owner can control the placement of the ad on the page. Putting the ad below the fold lowers the effectiveness. So if you are going to do multiple ads on the page, then having those sold in a coordinated fashion to the same marketer works. But breaking that out to different marketers creates clutter.

What else diminishes ROI?

Most marketers are aware of the international ad delivery issue. If you are selling a product in the u.s. and 20 percent of the impressions are outside the u.s., that’s just inefficient — it raises your CPM.

So we have to ask you this — it seems to be the obligatory question about display ads. Why are they so boring? And why can’t anyone ever remember them?

The first part of that answer is to start off with why advertising works. There is a lot of new research in the last decade looking at the brain patterns of people as they focus on advertising. I went to see this not long ago at University of California-Davis, watching people with their brains hooked up to MRI machines. And from this almost science-fiction type technology, we can see how people react to advertising. It’s often about cueing.

Here’s an analogy. Let’s say you are hungry and drive by a billboard for McDonald’s. That ad doesn’t have to be super creative — it’s a cue, and you make a mental connection with the brand.

So I would argue that the discussion of “how to make display more creative” is mental masturbation by creatives in black turtlenecks. It’s a bit of a waste of time.

Whoa. Can’t display be both creative and effective? Take travel, for example — couldn’t those ads show more beautiful tropical islands, for example, and fewer click-and-save come-ons?

Yes, you can have a travel ad with beautiful imagery. But you have to be careful — it can’t be creativity for the sake of creativity. It has to optimize the message. You have to have clarity. There is such a thing as a creative vampire — an idea that is creative but takes away from the message. It sucks the blood out of ROI.

And that is very pronounced in digital display because you don’t have that much real estate, and you are competing with content. In a full-page ad in a magazine or a spot on tv, the viewer is taking a break from content to look at the ad. Not in display. That’s why page takeovers or interstitials become more important. That’s where the competition for the eye glancing around the page is much less.

We’ve studied eye-tracking data, and what we found was that 12 percent of the time was spent looking at the display ad, and 88 percent looking at the content. And 12 percent is enough to get the message, but only if that message is very clear. It’s comparable to print, where most ads are only looked at for two seconds.

So a consistent logo is important. And if it’s a brand I recognize or a category I am interested in, that’s good. In eye tracking, you notice how quickly the eye is bouncing around, looking around for what is relevant to me. So if you have a story that is expanding, frame by frame? That is a lot of work!

If a single frame can’t communicate what is relevant, it isn’t an effective ad.

So why do you think so many marketers are still getting it wrong?

If you look at the way many creative agencies send out their ads, and the way they present them, it’s almost always on a screen with nothing else on it. But that’s not how people see them. The marketer would be better served if [the] agency sent the ads out in mocked-up dummy content.

What are your predictions for display?

It needs to be a better ecosystem because marketers are going to be continuing to look for innovation in the short term.
What I would love to see happen? Marketers changing their briefing processes and insisting that these insights are universally applied. I’m an optimist, so I hope so.

Do you think there’s a move toward greater discipline about how to use display in the marketing mix?

Well, when you think that in the next two years, we will cross the 20-year mark … My God, I hope we are getting more disciplined!

We’re curious. What are your favorite display ads?

It was a while ago. Budweiser’s Happy Hour ads, which they bought at 4 p.m. The skyscraper was a beer glass, and the bottle poured in. It wasn’t earth-shattering, but it was all done right.

Any disastrous ones?

That’s the thing. It isn’t so much that there are bad display ads, it’s just that they’re harmless. They don’t get anyone’s attention. It’s a big waste of money. In so many examples, you look at the ads and they don’t register. So it isn’t that ads damage the brand. It just slowly burns a hole in the marketer’s pocket.

What will change display the most?

Software algorithms. These have the ability for effective digital display advertising to be in a budget planning process across media, and begin to pull budget from tv or radio. What the digital display marketers need to recognize is that the cross-media planning abilities are really coming online.  

Digital display has been its own echo chamber for the past 15 years. And when it begins to take in these cross-media pieces, I think now is the time for display to step up its game. Pretty quickly, in the next few years, that will be the biggest change — and if your roi is tanking, you will lose money, and it will shift directly into other media. If you’re effective, you can steal budget. You’ll have the evidence you need, and it will be baked into the infrastructure of how media is bought. It is truly zero-based cross-media budget allocation. And digital media will sink or swim based on that.

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