Mostly Dead

"It just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead." Those are the infamous words of wisdom  uttered by Miracle Max (played by Billy Crystal) from the movie "The Princess Bride," after Max finished examining a seemingly lifeless hero named Westley.

Aside from my fascination with classic movies and TV from the '80s, there is a point to this retro flashback. There has been much written about the demise of the display ad. If you look at the numerous columns and blogs written on this subject over the past year you might be inclined to believe that display ads are either dead, mostly dead or at the very least badly broken.

Do a Google search on "Display ads are dead" and you'll find plenty of articles from every major online publication relating to the death of display ads as we know them. Even my fellow Online Publishing Insider columnist, David Koretz, recently wrote a column entitled  "Display Advertising Needs To Die."

However, as Miracle Max points out, if you're mostly dead, you're also slightly alive. While there is no shortage of opinions expressing doom and gloom about the life span of the display ad, there are just as many in the industry that would argue the opposite point of view. Some would even argue that it is not the display ad vehicle that is broken, but rather the methods of targeting and tracking that are in need of an overhaul.

Whether display is mostly dead or not is clearly still up for debate. What isn't up for debate is that the Internet landscape is constantly evolving, and that evolution encompasses the advertising model that sustains it. So, rather than debate the current state of display advertising, why not consider where it is headed? If advertising dollars continue to flow from traditional advertising into the online space, what additional or innovative advertising solutions will our industry have to offer other than paid search, which will continue to be the industry's cornerstone for the foreseeable future?

Does the future lie with some new advertising model? Better ways of targeting and tracking? Let's take a brief look at some of the options that have emerged:

Social Media Ads & Widgets
The popularity and growth going on in the social media space has advertisers, publishers and networks scrambling to figure out ways to leverage and monetize this new form of online networking and collaboration. There are several solutions that incorporate social media technology into display ads, widgets or integrated content solutions from companies like Pluck and Gigya or the "SnaggableAd" from Clearspring and PointRoll. The social media avalanche has even prompted one network, Federated Media Publishing, to abandon its display ad focus to focus on what they refer to as "conversational marketing."

It is too early yet to know if any of the these solutions are the answer, but it is clear that developing a solution for monetizing social media will be critical this year and could be a game-changer both for advertisers and publishers.

Mobile Ads
It seems that every year in recent memory has been predicted to be the "Year of Mobile." 2009 may finally be that year. The iPhone and other touch-screen handheld phones, along with high speed networks, have opened up opportunities for advertising in ways that simply didn't exist a year ago, as people use their mobile phones more and more to consume digital content and information. This could be the year to finally explore the potential of mobile before the gold rush truly arrives and the barrier to entry increases.

In-Game and In-Application Ads
While advertisers and publishers have gone to sometimes excruciating lengths (i.e.,  ESPN's prestitial home page takeover ad ) to monetize every pixel, click, view and digital movement, online activity only represents one segment of time spent on a computer. While in-game advertising has established itself as a viable alternative for advertisers looking for new ways to reach their customers, the development of ad-supported software applications is coming soon. This may open up new recurring revenue streams for software publishers, which is welcome news for companies like Microsoft, but doesn't really benefit Web site publishers looking for better ad solutions.

Alternative Forms of Targeting & Tracking
The methods and metrics that we use to target and track the success of display ads may also be part of the problem. "While display ads are effective tools for brand advertisers, they can also become an important tool in the arsenal of direct response advertisers as well," says Chad Little, CEO of FetchBack. The challenge is to educate advertisers on the importance of tracking the impact of an ad beyond the click. Atlas Engagement Mapping is an example of a solution that can provide a more in-depth view of the true impact of a display ad.

I don't believe that display ads are dead. I certainly don't want them to die, since they are partially responsible for paying my salary (though I'm not affiliated with any of the companies I've mentioned). That being said, I welcome the innovative ideas and fresh perspectives that are needed to help display ads evolve and take advantage of the new technologies and usage trends that continue to shape our online interaction and activity. If the industry doesn't evolve, however, display ads could be on the path to becoming "all dead" -- and not even Miracle Max could breathe life back into it then.



6 comments about "Mostly Dead".
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  1. Henry Blaufox from Dragon360, January 22, 2009 at 1:52 p.m.

    We know that usually by the time someone uses search and clicks for product information, the decison to buy from someone has been made, or nearly so. Prior engagement via online display and traditional advertising is crucial to building and maintaining the brand awareness. A major problem is that we are still trying to measure display ads in DR terms. The metrics have to reflect what we are trying to accomplish with display.

    Henry Blaufox
    Oxclove Workshop

  2. Laura Orsini from, January 22, 2009 at 2:02 p.m.

    I am ASTONISHED that I knew instantly the reference on reading those two words in your subject line. It's kinda like "Name That Tune," but with movie lines. Wow - the staying power some words have. Thanks for the insight. Always good stuff!

    <a href="" target="blank">Laura</a>

  3. Steve Baldwin from Didit, January 22, 2009 at 2:14 p.m.

    This industry has been churning out experimental ad mechanisms 24/7 for more than 10 years.

    Search is the only ad mechanism that works. The rest of them suck, and everybody knows it.

    President Obama advised the nation to "give up childish things." I suggest we start with all forms of online advertising that don't work: they are mere childish distractions from the real work that needs to get done.

  4. Joe Fredericks, January 22, 2009 at 3:56 p.m.

    Nice link bait.

    Better tracking is needed to show performance lift with display. It's coming (Comscore, Clearsaleing, Microsoft Engagement mapping) - and whomever comes out with the killer analytics app is gonna make a lot of money considering the infinite supply of display inventory versus limited search inventory.

    Display creates interest and awareness, and search closes the deal. They both work together - for DR or Brand.

  5. Durant Imboden from, January 22, 2009 at 6:50 p.m.

    Display ads aren't dead; they're just being bought more selectively--and, in some cases, at CPMs that are noticeably higher than they were a year ago. Advertisers no longer have to settle for audiences that are defined as "everybody who reads the day's news in Des Moines" or "all the people who log onto MySpace to talk about themselves."

  6. Monica Bower from TERiX Computer Service, January 23, 2009 at 12:04 p.m.

    Every once in a while i'm reading a magazine and I wish I could click through the ad for the newest flavor of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and get to their website.

    The reality is, display ads have worked in the print workd for a long time without ever garnering a single clickthrough. They're great for image/promo but mleh for action. Then again everything but search is mleh for action because search is in itself, an action!

    And the other major issue, I still contend, is that advertisers themselves have yet to perfect the visual medium, whether static or video, and successful clickthrough ona display ad has a lot more to do with the overall visual appeal/focus/audience targeting/etc of the image, rather than merely how compelling your meta tags are or whatever adword you've cornered when you're displaying text in a world of text.

    If search served up an image with the text for some advertisers, which ones do you thnk would be clicked? SEO is artificially effective vs display ads because they rarely compete head to head.

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