Standardization stunts growth

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If the internet advertising Bureau had been at Kitty Hawk, we would probably all be flying around in single-passenger planes, may-be even lying on our stomachs. The IAB's (and Sharpe Partners is a paying member) new banner standards are not going to save digital advertising on the In-ternet or elsewhere.

First, neither the Internet nor Internet advertising needs to be saved. The commercial Internet, and with it Internet advertising, actually is quite healthy for a six-year-old medium. Check the history books for the commercial status of, say, the film medium at the age of six around 1901. Positively doomed to failure. Clearly, that was a premature death notice. Second, because this isn't standardization-13 different units-it is stumbling in the dark. It's all almost enough to accuse the IAB of wanting to stifle the growth of the very thing they are committed to nurture.

From its inception, the IAB's rush to standardization has been a self-serving exercise. Under the guise of making it easier for advertisers to sell and agencies to buy, they have stunted experimentation and growth at a time when the medium needed it most-at the beginning. The original 1996 standards may have made it easier for ad agency media departments and the sites' sales forces, but it was hell for banner builders and ultimately destructive to the advertiser sites' bottom lines. How could those units do the job they were asked to do? No wonder click-through rates plummeted.

More critical, especially now, the IAB continues to avoid the most important issue: how to create marketing for these environments that will effectively communicate brand and product messages to consumers. They say the new standards will "enable marketers to utilize greater interactivity as well as expand the creativity in their online messaging." Besides being a sentence only a committee could love, it never mentions who the banners are made for-our clients' customers. And reaching, need I say, moving customers is in fact the goal of advertising. If consumer response had been the prime driver for the original standards, the original "button" units never would have seen the light of day. Likewise, I suggest the communication value of the new "rectangle" is suspect.

But, hey, I could be wrong. Maybe that postage stamp-size button blinking on the bottom of a Web page is the most compelling messaging medium since the advent of the 30-second spot. Could be. So I'd like to humbly suggest the IAB begin a research program with actual consum-ers to test these units and their power to move brands, sales and stock prices, if applicable.

It really shouldn't be difficult. Various member sites and advertisers might work together to set up a methodology that tests size, placement and response against set objectives. Use it as a benchmark and commit to an ongoing tracking study. This could insure that future evolutions of banners will grow out of consumer understanding rather than, well, a committee. The results could be offered to members and sold to non-members.

For the last five years it's been great fun to learn by doing. Only experience and, for some of us, common sense, could teach us that: a) saying "Click Here" increased the likelihood of a consumer clicking; b) animation was more eye-catching than a still image; c) wear-out was almost immediate; and d) consumers don't like to be interrupted when reading the news.

But now, having diced that out, we should be able to get to more complex variables. More importantly, consumer's interactions with the computer screen are changing every day. We need to understand that to make our clients' messages as effective as possible. An ongoing IAB-funded and driven Internet consumer tracking study would be a beginning.

And then there is wireless.

This may be out of the IAB's scope, despite their committee. After all, they've been unable to deal with the anachronism of their own name, so standardizing PDA advertising may be too much to ask. On the other hand, it could be the perfect venue for all those "buttons."

Ms. Sharpe is founder/partner of Sharpe Partners, New York, founded in 1998 as a "next-generation" marketing agency. She previously was director of Internet marketing at DDB Worldwide, New York.

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