The shape of things to come

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The promise of online advertising has always been the ability to measure its effectiveness. But that promise has also proved to be online advertising’s curse.

With click-through rates today a seemingly useless metric and cost-per-impression prices dropping way below rack rates, many in the advertising community see the original banner ad nearing extinction.

"The reason the Web is held to a higher standard [than traditional ad media] is that it said it could deliver a higher standard," said Jim Nail, Forrester Research Inc. analyst. "So the advertisers said, ‘Prove it.’ "

Both Web-based media properties and advertisers last year began to develop new formats that built upon the banner’s early promise by using burgeoning technologies to add better ways to serve up product and service information as well as complete branding messages. Industry groups such as the Interactive Advertising Bureau have been fully supportive of these innovations, which run the gamut from unique shapes and sizes to ones that almost act like a Web site unto themselves. Most importantly, these formats—ever evolving—are able to give advertisers clearer, more measurable returns on their investments.

The new formats—including dynamic HTML, superstitials and skyscrapers—borrow creative techniques from proven media such as print and television. They are most often larger and more noticeable than the banner, appear closer to Web content and often interrupt the transmission of Web pages to dominate the computer screen and the viewer’s attention, at least briefly.

Many new formats are performing well, but Sarah Fay, president of Carat Interactive, San Francisco, cautioned about getting too excited about the potential of each and every new format, of which there are now dozens. "I think we’re finding that almost anything is more efficient than [the original] standard banner," she said.

If you don’t properly place your ads on Web venues that accurately target your prospective customers, then the cutting-edge bells and whistles of these new formats will be wasted, industry experts say. Conversely, the more intrusive ad formats can work if they’re reaching those most interested in the message, but as these are popping up everywhere, it’s possible those using them shotgun-style may ruin the technologies and tactics for everyone, they said.

BtoB takes a close look at several of the new Web ad formats, pointing out the positives and negatives of each. Included are some prime examples of b-to-b creatives, as well as expert opinions from industry veterans and analysts, and a look at the formats’ ROI.

Dynamic HTML

One recent addition to the slew of rich-media ad formats is dynamic HTML (DHTML). Sun Microsystems Inc. used DHTML in the online version of its "dot in dot-com" campaign. One execution featured the headline "Dive into the net economy headfirst" and depicted a woman who then dove through the Web page. The ads ran on CBS MarketWatch, and elsewhere. Mike Hensley, president-Internet services for HSR Business to Business Inc., said his agency has the capability to develop DHTML for its clients, but hasn’t pursued such creative yet. Traditional trade publishers have been slow to move beyond banners. "They’re way behind," Hensley said. One downside, experts said, is that sometimes DHTML can pop up unexpectedly on a viewer’s screen and actually scare them.

Messaging plus units

These larger units were introduced earlier this year by CNet Networks Inc. "I’m a huge fan of those," said Euro RSCG/DSW Partners’ VP-media director Elizabeth Bellit. "They’re in the place where people are looking for information; they’re right in the editorial like a fractional ad." Novell Inc. is running a messaging plus unit promoting its new Netware 6 networking software with a rich-media headline reading, "Your Network. Anytime. Any device. Anywhere." The elegant ad also takes advantage of its large size to use a lot of white space, something not often seen in Web advertising.


McGraw-Hill’s Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine uses a pop-up ad on its Web site to promote its Aerospace Expo 2001 conference. The ad, which pops up in another window when visitors arrive at the site, is a letter from Publisher Kenneth E. Gazzola positioning the expo as a venue to learn about the state of the aviation industry in the wake of Sept. 11. Agency Tribal DDB Worldwide has found the pop-up format much more effective than banners. "We’ve gotten click-throughs of 5%," said Mark Mirsky, media director-North America. "They’re very in your face." And that might be their biggest problem as well. "Fundamentally, it just messes up the experience of the Web," Forrester’s Nail said. "I think marketers have to be very careful that these sorts of feelings of being intruded upon don’t damage their brands." With the ubiquity of the intrusive spy camera ads on the Web, we’re finding we don’t have much tolerance for the pop-under format either.


Unicast, one of the early developers of the superstitial Web ad, bills the format as "the Internet’s commercial"—essentially TV spots on the Web. Dow Jones & Co. Inc. recently used a superstitial to help introduce its Web site. With a click-through rate of 9%, the superstitial accounted for nearly 11% of the total visits to the StartupJournal site, despite being only 1% of the online ad buy. Although he is generally opposed to ad formats that interrupt the Web experience, Forrester’s Nail concedes superstitials may be the format of the future. "If I were running a media company ... banners, buttons, I’d take all that crap off the page entirely," he said. "What you’d do then is show one superstitial every five minutes. That’s my only inventory. Now bid for it."

Video (TV to Web)

Many entertainment sites have begun to show full movie trailers, ripped right from TV spots. And b-to-b advertisers have picked up on the easily implemented and cost-effective tactic. For instance, Siebel Systems Inc. runs a converted TV commercial, on the video edition of CNet’s site. The video spot appears during video news clips. To watch the spot, visitors need a fairly robust modem, but that’s not usually a problem for the business and IT set, the primary market for Siebel’s messaging. Forrester’s Nail is uncertain whether relatively long video messages are the right medium for reaching Web users, who are generally in a hurry, searching for a specific piece of information. "Online, people are actively engaged," Nail said. "For them, 30 seconds is an eternity."

Content integration

Web advertising cannot get any more straightforward than the "content integration ad." Developed and used by companies including technology news publisher NewsFactor Network, content integration ads appear smack dab in the editorial, right between a story headline and where the text begins. The marketing message is clearly marked as an advertisement, so editorial integrity is maintained, NewsFactor argues. The format is almost technophobe in nature: Without rich media or other bells and whistles, the ads load quickly. NewsFactor claims that content integration ads are three times more effective than banners.


These long, narrow ads were one of the first new formats to appear on the scene after the original banner. Commerce One Inc. and InFocus Corp., both clients of Euro RSCG/DSW Partners, have found skyscrapers deliver a bigger impression for their buck. Chris Elwell, VP-general manager of INT Media Group Inc., said skyscrapers have performed 80% to 120% better than banners on his company’s sites. Skyscrapers are similar to CNet’s messaging plus units—providing more room and remaining on the screen as the user scrolls down—but text does not wrap and ads stay in the margins. Forrester’s Nail remains skeptical about skyscrapers. "They’re just as easy to ignore as banners," he said.

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