Few can agree on numbers, but digital ad creators can expect a livelihood for some time to come. The IAB claims Web ad spending last year doubled to $1.92 billion, outstripping the $1.58 billion spent on billboards and other traditional outdoor media. According to trade publication eMarketer, U.S. Web ad spending will grow from $3.8 billion next year to $8 billion by 2002. More than half that money goes to the king of online formats: the banner ad. These intrusive digital "billboards" are the Burma Shave signs of the Infobahn. Clicking on a basic banner sidetracks Netizens from their surfing agenda and redirects them to a company Web site -- which may be why most consumers choose to ignore them.
Nowadays, less than two percent of visitors actually click. But an ad's success or failure is not always proportional to its click rate. "If you use the words 'free' and 'sex,' you get more than a 20 percent click-through rate," says Oscar Gonzalez of the Spanish agency Wysiwyg. "But if it takes you to a banking site, what good did it do you?"
Despite the deficit of click-happy Cyberians, banners may build brand image and awareness as effectively as any TV spot. An America Online-sponsored study by Ipsos-ASI states that 40 percent of Web surfers viewing stand-alone banners recall the brand names they represent -- compared to 41 percent able to remember the brand behind a 30-second TV commercial. "Given that the majority of users will not interact with a banner, it's important to address them in a different way," says Paco Vinoly, design director at the San Francisco-based interactive ad agency Lot21. "The medium does not pause for the ad to appear, so given a competitive space for the user's attention, a graphically innovative and interesting banner is a must."
Where the first banners were simple GIF images, their offspring are veritable motion pictures. Banners can now pack surprisingly complex multiple-frame GIF animations into files as small as 12K -- crucial in this time- and space-sensitive medium. HTML spawns ads that are part banner, part form; one such ad allows users to enter their lottery ticket number to see if they've won. Authoring tools like Macromedia Fireworks 2.0 (for online graphics), Flash 3.0 (for motion graphics and interactivity) and Flash Generator are radically transforming online.
ads. With the latter, single banners can deliver real-time information and redirect to dozens of individual Web sites. Not all ads ricochet to other sites. Company megasites are costly to create and maintain. Unlike 'redirects' that force users from a chosen Web page, more advertisers are using little pop-up microsite windows containing ad information or links. These small satellite pages often pop up without any prompting from the user.
Despite innovation, banners are yielding to other formats -- namely "strategic sponsorships." These value-added sponsor sites -- destined to rule online by 2003 -- are a bit like The Lawrence Welk Show. Welk's televised accordion-fest gave you "wunnerful" music, bubbles and tapdancing, but never let you forget that Geritol made it all happen; sponsorship sites amuse with contests, recipes or columns, yet the sponsor is omnipresent. Gonzalez says sponsorships are effective because, in addition to strengthening brand image, they give consumers valued information in a comfortable setting. A Wysiwyg-created site for the Spanish Avecrem brand gets 68,000 visits a month -- not because Web surfers are crazy about the company's bouillon cubes, but because the site offers recipes and contests. Sponsored sites also allow companies to gather user profiles; when a music site, for example, asks surfers to vote on their favorite song, the result is a database of individual musical tastes.
'Interstitials' are another, less popular format, but the advantage of these pull-down menus is that they don't force a user to go anywhere. In this form, advertisers can get their message across in situ. According to the eAdvertising Report from eMarketer, sponsorships took up 40 percent of last year's online ad dollars, compared with the 52 percent reserved for banners. Three percent went to interstitials, other formats took the remaining five percent. In a medium where innovation is everything, and history means last week, the 'other' category holds much promise. While Web browsers like Netscape and Microsoft Internet Explorer act as secret decoder rings for HTML code, they aren't the only path to online content. Audio and video Netcasting, for instance, also serve as vehicles for advertising.
Another approach came this year when Free-PC Inc. offered a gratis computer, e-mail and Net access to consumers willing to allow ads to appear onscreen; along with ads on the hard drive, new ones download when the user goes online. In this age of media convergence, the limits depend on our collective creativity. "Electronic advertising will begin to expand beyond the Internet, and merge into other mediums," says Vinoly. "Whether it's a dynamically online-generated television spot, or temporary ads printed on clothes through radio frequencies, the future holds limitless possibilities. The great part is that the future is