Journey to Bannerania (1)

[October 24, 2011] 

As digital engagement vehicles go, Web banners have to work hardest to earn consumers’ attention. If we find that regrettable, we have only ourselves to blame. Low response rates for banners are the direct result of the thoughtless way this resource was squandered in the early years of digital marketing. 

In retrospect, it’s astonishing how quickly the medium was dragged down to levels of shlock normally associated with those “mouth-watering” come-ons that dominate the wee hours of the broadcast TV schedule.

Gaudy, jiggly and stuffed full of archaic promotional ploys even the direct mail niche had largely abandoned, banners proliferated like Star Trek tribbles, popping up everywhere and spawning the exaggerated, security-mad environment that makes users reluctant to click through to this day.

Of course, on another level, that mistrust is certainly justified—as the reward for click-through continues to be, in many cases, a value-nebulous landing page with a plea to “sign up for more information”—a promise more often made than kept. Even the introduction of rich media banners of the kind exemplified by Pointroll.com has done nothing to halt this downward slide to mediocrity. 

So it is, as with every other advertising media, a refusal to maintain reasonable standards for quality and transparency have led to the situation we now face. Having taught consumers that banner ads are, with few exceptions, worthless sink holes of empty promotional nonsense, we can hardly be surprised if click-through or interaction rates are disappointingly low. 

When failure is expected…
It has, in some circles, become axiomatic. Whether your talent currently resides at an Effie-laden, established agency or a struggling start-up with a heart of strategic insight, you’re liable to hear the phrase “Nobody clicks on banners,” an average of 20 times a week. Like any of the other unexamined assertions about consumer behavior that circulate like dust mites in the wind, this one is based on a self-fulfilled prophesy. 

Now, to be clear, I’m not disputing the statistics, assuming they’ve been gathered correctly. I’m simply questioning their mechanical interpretation. If banners, as a category, aren’t generating results, I doubt it’s because there’s anything inherently off-putting about them. On the contrary, as a concentrated blast of messaging, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be among the most effective tools we have to motivate behavior.

…the prophesy is easy to fulfill.
On this issue, as on so many others, marketing theorists and advertising gurus who should know better are suffering from a confusion of cause and effect. Again, if consumers are refusing to interact with banners—or muting TV spots, or closing their eyes to billboards, or strolling past POP displays—it’s because we’ve taught people to expect our work to, excuse me, suck.

Have you taken a look at the average Web banner? Have you stopped to read one? 

OMG. The unrivaled drivel that resides in a standard 728 x 90, whether it expands to 728 x 250 or not, is so dreary I’m sure it will soon be listed as a primary cause of narcolepsy by the Merck Manual. On the messaging front alone, what we choose to say to consumers in these randomly-sized boxes rarely rises above the level of this:


Welcome to the Department of Demotivator-Vehicles.
Sure, you can doll-up this structure with a wacky pun, a hip cultural reference, or an “interesting fact,” but that’s still only the proverbial lipstick. At base, this pig is still an empty shell adding nothing of value. Imagine the difference if your banner delivered even a tad of value before click-through. As it stands, the absence of value in the opening sequence of many a banner is deathly demotivating. 

Equally demotivating is the way such banners are overloaded with layered messages. In a space that would challenge the limited dimensions of a cracker, we are way too eager to pile on the toppings and go for the extra cheese. And by messages, I’m not talking about words, exclusively, but everything we use to engage and enrapture consumers. 

“Isn’t there a better way?” Maybe. In my next post I’ll report on my upcoming expedition into the wilds of Bannerania. Will I find my worse fears confirmed, or will a glint of rainbow appear here and there between the giant ferns of the genus optimus praxis austerus that dominate the landscape?


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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