Exactly 20 years ago this week, NBC aired the sixth episode of "Friends" (the one where Joey gets cast as Al Pacino's butt double), Boyz II Men’s "I’ll Make Love To You" was at the top of the charts, TV personality Kelly Osbourne turned 10 years old, and the movie "Stargate" was just about to hit theaters.
Something else noteworthy happened, within the World Wide Web, as well. On Thursday, Oct. 27, 1994, online “magazine” HotWired made its big debut and, along with it, the launch of the very first commercial banner ad.
That ad was from AT&T and simply read, “Have you ever clicked your mouse right here? You will.” And people did just that, in droves, as the ad boasted a 78% click-through rate (CTR) and was touted as a “wonderful tool for marketers.”
Ironic, 'eh? Since over time, banner ad CTRs have plummeted to an average of .08% (yes, that is a decimal point). To put this in perspective, my colleague, Noah King, helped me to visualize this: Take four airplanes filled with people and expose them to a banner ad. In 1994, every single person in three of those four planes (and then some) would have clicked the ad. Today, merely one person on just one of those planes would click.
So now, should we be celebrating the banner ad’s birthday or planning its funeral? You might be thinking how far ad tech has come in the past two decades: targeting, audience buying, dynamic creative, and of course, the word du jour, “programmatic.” These are all great advancements that, by themselves, don’t solve the fundamental issue inherent to display ads: banner blindness.
If the masses are subconsciously not seeing our ads in the first place, no amount of automation will make a material difference – we’re merely optimizing advertising mediocrity. And how’s the industry responding? Spray and pray – We’re flooding the web with more impressions and higher frequencies hoping our target happens to glance over at the right place at the right time and want to read our marketing messages.
Some of you are going to say that banner ads still work. And you’re right. Because in 2014 they actually have to work a whole lot harder than many of their digital marketing siblings to do their job efficiently.
There’s a reason “native ads” have been hyped up these past couple of years. They show some promise in that (when done well) they bring an element of creativity back into online advertising. The tradeoff? It’s more work to concept individual experiences platform-by-platform and site-by-site. But perhaps that’s how it should be. Because when creative, technology, and user experience all come together, great things can happen.
Or we can simply continue to keep the two-decade old banner ad on life support. But if we do, its copy should read, “Have you ever clicked your mouse right here? You won’t.”