Today marks the 25th birthday of the banner ad; a quarter century since AT&T, MCI, Volvo, Club Med, 1-800-Collect and others placed the first-ever ad buy with the online publication HotWired. We'll leave it to you as to whether you want to raise a glass or break a bottle over someone's head.
If you were to raise a glass (or for that matter, break a bottle), might we suggest Zima? A public oddity when it was introduced in 1993, Zima was a carbonated, lightly-alcoholic cooler that presaged the White Claw craze by nearly three decades. The brand would eventually fizzle out, relegated to decade-specific Trivial Pursuit questions. But not before it latched onto another, slightly more successful, oddity at the time: the internet. In late October of 1994, it was among the first batch of advertisers to launch into cyberspace.
"We wanted to be very outside the box in everything we did," says Ralph Heim, who was the media buying manager at Zima parent Coors Brewing Co. in 1994. Heim is now the vp of media at Sonic Drive-In. "To the degree we did digital marketing, it wasn't a big piece. The banner ad was just trying to create curiosity."
AT&T gets credit for being the first brand to actually land a banner ad on the site. HotWired would evolve into Wired, which is now owned by Condé Nast. Zima was in that first auspicious pool of buyers, and eventually the rest of the ad world joined in what would become a revolution in marketing. Those first banner ads were 468 pixels wide by 60 pixels deep. Zima's display copy read: "Refreshment for the mind."
AT&T's banner was slightly more future-thinking: "Have you ever clicked your mouse right here? You will."
People clicked. AT&T's ad lured 44 percent of readers to click, a miracle click-through rate by today's standards. The click led to a landing page with links to webpages for museums like Paris' Musée d'Orsay, and, naturally, a link to more information about AT&T.
But that's novelty for you. By 2009, it had worn off. A decade ago, the average CTR for online display ads was 0.1 percent, according to a report that year from DoubleClick, the digital ad exchange that Google bought in 2007. Today the lowly banner CTR is not much better, hovering at around 0.5 percent, according to data cited by advertising firm WordStream.
Zima's banner ad was not even clickable. "I couldn't tell you if it worked or didn't," says Heim.
He's not alone. Twenty-five years on, digital marketers incessantly debate the return on investment of a banner ad, or really any digital display.
In 2000, Google debuted AdWords, which elevated the much maligned "click-through" as a barometer of success in search advertising, only charging marketers every time a consumer clicked the blue link in the sponsored results. AdWords also pioneered the ad auction, where advertisers decided how much they were willing to bid to appear higher in search. The auctions would spread to banner ads when Google bought DoubleClick in 2008, and more ad exchanges would sprout to create a real-time bidding ecosystem across the internet.
Online advertising is expected to generate $120 billion in the U.S. this year, growing from just $100 million in 1995, according to an advertising forecast from Publicis Groupe’s Zenith.
Since 1994 the internet advertising landscape has become mind-numbingly complex. There are more ad formats, including native, video and audio. An alphabet soup of vendors have cropped up—DSPs, SSPs, DMPs, oh my!—meant to make marketers' lives more efficient. There are more ad platforms, including YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Commercials are served to internet-connected TVs, bought through online auctions just like banner ads are sold today. In the past two decades, ad fraud, ad blocking and jargon like "banner blindness" have penetrated online marketing.
"Back when we were buying display ads, there were no ad networks," Heim says. "We went directly to the publishers, because we felt they had big audiences. We didn’t have Comscore or Nielsen. We didn’t think about viewability. Ad fraud was there, and bots, but we didn’t think about any of that stuff."
In the intervening years, the banner ad has become the source of scorn. It's been rejected, reviled and parodied by everyone from "South Park" to "College Humor." Internet users have installed ad blockers to thwart them; and they have earned a reputation as vehicles for malware and spyware. Today, the type of brand running banners is about as likely to be for "nearby hot singles" or toe fungus removal as it is AT&T.
Still, the banner ad retains a few admirers.
"It's one of the most misunderstood pieces of advertising on the internet," says Jeff Ferguson, CEO of Fang Marketing, a search and social advertising firm. Ferguson has been in online marketing for more than 20 years.
"In the early days, when we didn’t know what we were talking about, we would kind of judge things based on the data that was available," Ferguson says. "One of those terrible pieces of data was the click-through rate. What's the click-through rate for any other medium?"
When was the last time you "clicked through" a TV commercial mid-World Series game?
The average person sees 1,700 banner ads a month, Ferguson says, and with the right strategy a brand can cut through the clutter. "They serve a purpose on the consumer journey," Ferguson says. "That’s usually awareness and consideration. They make an impact on you just like anything else."
Janessa Seewald, director of media consulting services at Adswerve, a Google marketing partner, says that phones and new formats have had a profound impact on the banner ad. Mobile gave rise to accidental clicks, with people mistakenly tapping banners with "fat thumbs."
"You were taking these standard ads you were running on the web and shrinking them down to these mobile phones," Seewald says, "and they ended up being pixalated and just not looking the best."
Adswerve's CEO Clint Tasset is a former DoubleClick employee. The mobile banner has gotten more sophisticated. They load faster and include animation, video and sound. They can sync to cameras and launch augmented reality filters or deliver 360-degree, interactive images.
Google recently introduced "adaptive banners" for mobile devices, which size the ads to fit whatever screen they're appearing on. "They're not shrinking down banners just to that fixed type anymore," Seewald says.
"More brands and agencies and marketers are going beyond the click-through rate," Seewald says. "And not just because they don't want to see conversions and quality traffic, but because of all the different formats that are being introduced in digital, where the click doesn't really matter. It's more about the experience with your brand and making sure that you're delivering that with your advertising."
The banner ad is still here. And still evolving. In 25 years it will likely celebrate its 50th anniversary. Will we?