What’s fun about desperate times is that they call for desperate measures.
Take the online advertising industry. Amid an economic collapse that some warned could take out the entire industry, ad sellers from Google to Hulu to the New York Times have spent the last year to 18 months trying to innovate their way to survival.
The result: a slew of new ad units that promise an online advertising future evolved beyond the banner.
For example, there’s Hulu’s “Branded Entertainment Selector” unit. It provides users a choice in the ads they see: Both what type of ad and how many ads they’d like to see.
In the ad screen, shown above to your right, a user watching “24” can choose between watching a single movie trailer or to “watch your video with normal commercial breaks.” No matter which ad experience the user picks, it’s bound to be more engaging and less obnoxious than any banner. The videos are bound to tell a better brand story.
And the user’s choice — sometimes between different advertising brands — certainly tells the publisher and advertisers more than any simple click on a banner would.
It’s been a bruising run for the industry. Several of the new ad units we profile here were developed at companies that went through large layoffs. But the promise of a post-banner era alone could make it all worth it.
Because let’s face it, the banner is a lousy form of advertising. Let us count the ways:
- It can’t tell a story.
- It can’t be engaging without being interrupting and obnoxious.
- It’s scalable, but doesn’t feel “premium” in the way the back of a magazine can.
- It’s dependent on clicks.
- It’s loaded with baggage from the Web’s early spam-infested days.
So what other kind of new ads units evolved out of the economic collapse of the past 18 months try to solve all those same banner problems? Are they as innovative?
In the spring, 27 members of the online publishers association with a reach of about 109 million unique visitors per month -- 66% of the total U.S. Internet audience -- agreed to try one of three new online ad formats sometime before July.
Here's the New York Times's effort, from the Bing launch in June. The huge banner featured here is the Pushdown. It opens to display the advertisement and then rolls up to the top of the page. Its dimensions are 970 pixels wide by 418 pixels tall. Again, huge.
If the ad kind of looks like a magazine ad like you'd see in Vogue or Vanity Fair, then good: It's supposed to.
Here's a new ad unit social news site Digg launched this summer. Like a normal user-submitted Digg story, users can vote it up or down.
The theory is that Digg will be able to charge a higher rate per impression because advertisers will know their ads will only get a lot of views if it's an ad that users really take to. It also fits into the mould of Digg's site concept and layout, and can't be blocked by an ad-blocker script.
That's a bit Silicon Valley hippy-dippy for most consumers-will-get-their-huge-ads-and-like-it East Coasters, but let's admit: Voting sure beats the 'click' as far measuring how an audience is engaging with an ad, doesn't it?
One thing the banner has going for it is that, as the industry standard, it is very scalable. Advertisers can create one piece of creative and send it all over the Internet. Conversely, publishers can open up ad space for a banner and know that tons of advertisers exist to fill it.
Pretty ads that tell a story aren't so scalable. Gawker Media makes a lot of money re-skinning their site for advertisers. But that takes resources not available to every publisher.
Ad network VideoEgg attempts to solve this problem with a standard ad unit that lets advertisers insert video, graphics, and interactive assets. It's a takeover ad that only initiates at the user request.
When advertisers say they want to engage with users, what they mean is they want to interrupt that user's Web browsing experience with a sponsored message. If done clumsily, this can piss users off, scaring them away from the publisher's Web site.
So how do you engage users in a brand story without angering them? You ask them what type of ad and how many ads they'd like to see. At least, that's what Hulu does with their Branded Entertainment Selector unit.
In the screen grab above, a user watching '24' can choose between watching a three minute trailer for a movie or four different ads during the show. Neat, right?
How about if CBS were to say to advertisers: Hey, we can turn the viewer's entire TV frame into an ad. Up for it?
That's what Hulu's other big ad unit, the 'Branded Player Skin,' does.
Know what's sad? The most common way publishers show advertisers that their readers are engaged with their ads are to show clicks on the ads. According to the OPA, people who click on ads tend to be dumber and poorer than people who don't. This makes sense. Because really, who clicks on a banner ad?
Facebook testing a new ad format that allows advertisers to place direct-response forms on its homepage ad slots. The ad offers a real incentive for the user to click on it and fill the form out. In this ad, Chick-fil-A offers a free chicken biscuit.
So far, mobile advertising has been a wasteland of text links and small, boring banner ads. Blame crappy mobile devices with little computing power.
Apple's iPhone could change all that. Here's an ad that shows how. Built by OMD and NYC-based Medialets, it's a 'shakeable ad.'
Ads like this don't just look cool; they can sell for 10 times or more what a lame banner ad goes for. The New York Times is experimenting with Medialets in its iPhone app.
Mobile ad network AdMob took an extra step out of getting iPhone users to an advertiser's search box: It built the search box as the ad unit.
That's how Microsoft put a Bing search box into a bunch of iPhone apps earlier this summer without a single call to Apple. This example shows how an eBay ad turns right into an eBay search query.
In the online advertising industry, there's Google and its multi-billion dollar quarterly revenues, and there's everyone else.
But even Google's been busy innovating new ad units these past 18 months.
Here's an upgrade to their main cash-cow, sponsored search results. Now advertisers can stick a video in ads that come up when users search for specific keywords.
Another new Google ad unit are 'Google Product Ads.'
Unlike normal Google search ads, Google Product ads include pictures and 'individual offers with product information directly in the ad itself.'
Instead of charging per click, Google will charge advertisers for Google Product Ads based on the amount of inventory vendors sell through the ad.