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Display Ad Pioneer Looks to Resuscitate the Model He Helped Create

infolinks, January 7, 2014

Whether we like it or not, banners have become the staple of online advertising, and yet their effectiveness has been called into question time and time again due to the limited attention spans of consumers. The over-delivery of irrelevant and annoying ads has inadvertently desensitized consumers and trained them to ignore standard banner ads, and it’s quickly become an industry-wide epidemic.

“Ad serving technology enabled the explosion in display by making it simple for any publisher to create standard ad slots and get them monetized through ad networks, exchanges and other intermediaries,” he said. “For a long time, this was a good thing, but as the supply of ad space continued to increase unabated, it eventually created too much tonnage and irrelevant ads. US consumers now see an average of 50 online display ads per day. Consumers learned where ads are typically placed on the page and that those ads are usually not relevant to what they are doing at the moment. This caused banner blindness and the declining engagement rates we see today. Click through rates have declined from 2% in 1996 to less than .1% in 2013.”

Dave Zinman, an industry veteran who invented the ad server, now strongly believes that the display advertising model he helped create is now broken.

Now at the helm of text-based ad company Infolinks, Zinman believes that click-through and engagement rates are at an all-time low, resulting in billions of ad dollars being wasted each year. Today his company released a new study in partnership with market research firm EyeTrackShop that examines the issue of banner blindness, taking into consideration factors like ad location, brand recall, and ad responsiveness, and makes recommendations on how the digital media industry can tackle this growing problem.

The research utilized eye-tracking technologies via webcams to help brands see what consumers are looking at online. Webcams track the exact position of the eyes and where on the page they are focused. Researches asked each participant to review several web pages, recorded their eye movements and combined this data to generate visual heatmaps showing where the eyes spent the most time, as well as vital metrics for each region of the page that was studied. Metrics included: percentage seen, time to (how long it took for the participant to see the particular region), and time on (how long the participant’s eyes were focused on a particular region of the page).

Key findings of the study include:

  • Non-traditionally placed ads targeted to user intent were noticed more, seen more quickly and engaged consumers longer than standard display ad units.
  • Non-traditionally placed ad units were seen 225 percent quicker than standard leaderboard ads at the top of the page.
  • Alternative placements yielded higher results overall including awareness and engagement. In addition, time spent with these ad units increased by 100 percent compared to standard display placements.
  • Sixty percent of respondents said they didn’t find traditional ad units relevant whereas 75 percent deemed ad units targeted to users’ real-time intent relevant to the page.
  • Sixty percent of respondents said they found the unconventionally placed ads based on page content less disruptive than ads they typically encounter.

The takeaways from this study are pretty clear. Advertisers and publishers need to develop ads that do two things:

  1. Break the box of standard placement and show ads in non-traditional locations. This breaks the cycle of banner blindness and gets the ads noticed instead of ignored.
  2. Target ads to what people are interested in real time, not what they were doing the day, week or month before. By making ads more relevant to their current tasks, users will be more engaged with the ads, increasing time spent.

“In many ways, the trend towards native advertising addresses many of the challenges highlighted by the Infolinks Eyetracking Study,” added Zinman. “Native placements are non-traditional and break the cycle of banner blindness. In many cases, however, native ads are not targeted to real-time intent, however, and instead are utilizing retargeting to show people something they were interested in before. Once native advertising marries non-traditional placement with real-time intent, engagement rate declines will be firmly reversed.”

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