Happy 20th Birthday, Banner Ads. Now, Please, Retire

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.”

2 comments about "Happy 20th Birthday, Banner Ads. Now, Please, Retire".
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  1. David Mountain from Marketing and Advertising Direction, October 31, 2014 at 10:16 a.m.

    By all means, judge banner ads solely on CTR.

    Don't look at view through data, or revenue that's A/B tested against audiences that didn't see those banners that didn't get CTR. Those metrics might show, you know, lift, especially if your distribution is good. But not CTR, so the impressions were worthless.

    CTR is the only metric that matters.

    (Oh, and stuff that might tank CTR, like ad impression fraud? That doesn't matter either. It's all the fault of the creative.)

    CTR, CTR, CTR.

    I gots me a dumb hammer, and I'm a gonna use it.

    Next, a MediaPost columnist declares email is dead with the breaking news that open and response metrics are down there.

    And yet, all of these companies using these tools as part of a comprehensive plan that ensures coverage, awareness and (shh!) sales?

    They're doing it wrong. Because CTR.

  2. Mike Greco from Indy App Systems, October 31, 2014 at 4:39 p.m.

    As a long time reader of MediaPost, I'm baffled by the absurdity of this column being allowed to run. Really? Retire?!?! Have you seen what Facebook is doing? How about Airpush (their new Abstract Banners are amazing -- http://info.airpush.com/a1-oct14.html ). What about iAd? Apple is finally doing some cool stuff there. PLEASE don't look at the CTR of yesterday to determine where CTR will be tomorrow, or any metric tied to banners presently. Banners are still here after 20 years for a reason. And with time, and further reinvention, they will grow stronger, less irritating to users, more relevant to mobile consumers, more profitable for developers (who are monetizing FREE apps with banners) and bring better ROI for advertisers. Retire?! Give me a break!

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