OPINION: Breaking free from boring banners

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The Web is a great place to think outside the box. So why are we stuck in the banner mentality?

Marketers and agencies complain that banners stifle creativity and don't work for a lot of advertisers (dentalfloss.com, anyone?). Media sites abhor sending people away, which is exactly what happens when someone clicks on an ad.

SLAPPING ADS ON A SITE

Additionally, in the zeal to build the Web as an advertising marketplace, many have fallen into a lazy pattern of slapping ads on a few sites, looking at the click rates and making more buys on the sites that generated the most traffic.

While it's easy to see why agencies would want to automate the complex process of placing banners on the Web, such advertising is only slightly interactive. Worse, it's perilously close to being just another media buy, a calculation based on numbers and audience and delivery instead of relationships and targeting.

Banners work well for search engines because their sole purpose is to send people away to other sites. But for nearly everyone else, banner ads are becoming an interactive crutch.

"The ad models we have now were developed by garage shops," one high-profile agency interactive expert groused to me recently. "Buttons and banners are not really satisfactory at all."

GET SMART (BANNERS)

The answer, in hip Web advertising circles, is to go "beyond the banner." Some sites, such as HotWired, are experimenting with "smart" banners, which change depending on the visitor's browser type or domain (.com, .edu. etc.).

Firefly, an experimental site using intelligent agent technology, lets users rate ad banners on a scale of 1 to 7, with the notion being that as the system gets to know a person's likes or dislikes, it will start to display a banner that has a better chance of being clicked.

Even more intriguing and still quite controversial is the integration of marketers into media sites, and vice versa.

Clinique's new Web site prominently touts Conde Nast Traveler's list of best spas, along with a link to the magazine's site.

And Hearst HomeArts is about to unveil a major new content area devoted to food, with the backing of a single big sponsor that will integrate recipes into the site.

One need only look as far as CBS and Liz Taylor, or NBC's recent "Friends"/Diet Coke tie-in, to know the rules are bending in many mediums.

IT'S NOT TV

What it comes down to is this: The Web is not TV, where spots run in finite lengths and at set increments. There's no reason why advertising needs to look the same on every site.

Yes, going beyond the banner will throw a wrench in nearly everybody's plan. Tracking Web ad spending becomes impossible. Measuring click rates becomes a non-issue when everything happens inside one site.

Talk will soon turn from what makes a banner get clicked to what makes an ad click with a user.

The challenge is to make an ad relevant to its audience. And that means to begin thinking outside the box.

Debra Aho Williamson is editor of Interactive Media & Marketing.

Are banners dead? Send feedback to Debra via e-mail or join the discussion on the Digital Media discussion board.

Copyright April 1996 Crain Communications Inc.

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