The Road to Relevance

[February 19, 2010]

Back in the early gold rush days of Internet marketing, I’m sure banner ads must have seemed quite an amazing innovation. Those glimmering rectangles of interaction: how enticing they were. Surely, people would find them irresistible, studded with the most motivating call-to-action every created.

“Click here” read the shiny button, sometimes enhanced with a Disney-esque twinkle harkening back to the era of Tinkerbelle and “Bibbidi-Bobbiti-Boo.” Entranced by the magic of hyperlinking, designers and marketers no doubt believed the urge to click would be so compelling, audiences wouldn’t notice the lack of value on the other side.

Today we know better. Fact is, it takes more than mechanical trompe l’oeil effects, jiggling credit cards or shimmying suburbanites to drive traffic to a landing page—and far more to convert that click through into a sale.

Yet strangely, the banner remains the less-than-gold standard of digital interaction on many Web pages. In many cases, at least, the number of banners per page has dropped, resulting in a proportional drop in distractions from the main content. In essence, however, their impact is still not too far removed from their ancestors, the painted signage that once graced Manhattan store fronts in a bygone era. It’s enough to shake your faith in marketing theory.

Of course, as the wizards at PointRoll will tell you, there are many potentially entertaining options that were not available even a decade ago, both in terms of video content and levels of interaction. Despite this, there’s one technology that still eludes even the sharpest of flash programmers.

I’m talking about relevance.

False parallels.
Part of the legacy of magazine and newspaper design, the online banner is, in essence, a space ad. But what has always passed as a mildly irritating interruption in print is transformed into an irrelevant blot online. On the face of it, you might expect the parallel to be perfect. In both cases a swath of text sits next to a rectangle of ad space.

As always, the crucial difference lies in the context. Some exceptions aside, print magazine ads have always tended to have higher production values than the article copy they jut into. Whether a shiny car or the darting eyes of a couple on holiday in Bermuda, print ads add luster.

In digital space, the distinction between content and intrusion is harder to maintain, as the same tools are equally accessible to each. Besides the average digital marketer is shilling online precisely because costs are often significantly lower. They’re not about to invest in state-of-the-art design for a banner ad—it would only defeat the purpose.

Tired angles.
The result is a flat and often garish box filled with anything from blinky buttons to a squwunched up approximation of the brand’s current broadcast campaign. If anyone believes a badly cropped photo of a minor celebrity hawking a major car manufacture’s latest sale-a-thon is attracting much attention, I can only hope they won’t be out driving tonight. Worse still is the budget padding “media strategy” of placing minor variations of the same banner in two different locations on the same page.

In contrast to that appraoch are attempts to engage two different page areas in a kind of dialogue, as recently attempted by Apple, in which the “PC” character seemed to “run upstairs” to dissuade consumers from switching to Macintosh. Leaving aside, for the moment, Apple’s unbearably smug brand persona (ready as they are to stand in for the Dalai Lama at a moment’s notice), I’m not convinced that antics of this kind really do much to engage consumers.

For one thing, the “I’m a Mac/I’m a PC” campaign was already tired before its Web integration began. For another, consumers come to digital space to do stuff. Who has any interest in another installment in this faded reminiscence of the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby road pictures of the 40s?

Box-cutters, anyone?
But I digress. The issue here is the future viability of the banner, this petty annoyance that does little to earn brands much in the way of equity with consumers. What’s the solution? Experimentation. What about corporate underwriting of a Web page? What about subtler forms of design that integrate themselves more seamlessly into a particular Web presence, mirroring it in copy tone, design standards and content?

At the very least, the spandex-model of banner advertising, stretching itself all out of shape to appear wherever today’s plucky media buyers can squeeze them should become a thing of the past. Like a factory spewing wastes in a residential neighborhood, ugly, flat and boring banners only pollute digital space, mooring it to a toxic past most of us only are too anxious to sail away from.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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