On Net, size matters: Large ads fare better

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Now that the online advertising community has decided ads should run bigger, it's time to discover whether bigger is, in fact, better.

The first study to examine whether such ads are effective is soon to be released by the Walt Disney Internet Group and the Millward Brown Intelliquest research firm, which is owned by WPP Group. Not surprisingly, it shows that, for now at least, bigger is indeed better.

The study, which compared a Disney Big Impression ad unit promoting the movie "The Mummy Returns" on the home page of ESPN.com to a typical banner ad promoting the same movie, demonstrated that the 30% bigger ad was three times "more impactful" than the banner. The study was performed during Super Bowl week (an ad for the movie also ran on the Super Bowl telecast).

Of course, skeptics might wonder what ESPN.com and Millward mean by "more impactful" and will probably be disappointed to learn that ESPN.com and Millward stated they measured impact against typical branding metrics, ignoring, for the purpose of this study, click-throughs.

The Millward Brand Impact study looked at things such as awareness, imagery and future consideration. ESPN.com also contends that the unit is more about being a place for dynamic online billboards than direct mail-style come-ons.

"We developed the ad unit as a way of providing our advertisers with a way to own the most trafficked part of our site for a 24-hour period," said Riley McDonough, VP-ad sales for the ESPN Internet Group. The Mummy ad, which employed Macromedia's Flash animation to provide a movie trailer-like experience, also linked to an early version of the movie's site.

Using a random sample of about 4,000 visitors to the site, from Jan. 23-30, the survey asked respondents to compare the Big Impression ad unit directly against a banner for the same movie. The study showed not only that the larger ad had three times the brand impact but that it had a positive halo on the brand image of "The Mummy" franchise. Viewers of the Big Impression ads were 10% more likely to view the movie as "worth paying the money for" and 13% more likely to believe the movie had "better digital effects" than when compared against exposure to the banner ad.

The results are encouraging for online publishers that have rapidly embraced the format amid declining revenue. ESPN.com has been charging $87,000 for a 24-hour slot, guaranteeing 2.5 million impressions since the format's September debut.

Newer versions were launched earlier this year, most noticeably by CNET Networks, which started to run large ads on the jump pages of its sites in January. Soon after, other sites followed suit and the Interactive Advertising Bureau issued guidelines for sizes for the new units in February.

So far, none of those other entities have released studies, though a CNET spokeswoman said the San Francisco tech-focused property is evaluating how well the new ads are performing. The IAB is working on a study with DynamicLogic and hopes to release preliminary results in the next few weeks.

Though there's a likelihood that each study will show that the larger ads get more notice, skeptics wonder whether these ads will ultimately serve publishers better than consumers. "[The Internet] is just not an appropriate place for branding," said Chuck Curtis, chairman-CEO of Kansas City, Mo.-based Valentine Radford, which has been closely studying the Internet audience.

The agency hasn't yet studied the big ads, but its data on other online ads points to potential problems. Among the 2,000 people in the agency's first-quarter Internet shopping study, pop-up ads were rated annoying by 60% of those polled, ranking well ahead of TV commercials (15%) and even banner ads (12%). Only time will tell where consumers place the new ads in the spectrum of attitudes toward advertising.

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