How to Make Display Ads Suck Less

Do They Know the Content They're Hanging Out With?

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Noah Brier
Noah Brier
Online display advertising sucks.

There, I said it. It's like everyone's been kind of skirting the issue over the last few months so as not to upset anyone. It seems like the conversations around the death (or at least decline) of display has been about everything but the ad itself. Funnily enough, that's exactly what I want to talk about.

I'd lose my director of strategy card (we really have those) if I didn't first acknowledge that these types of decisions should be led with objectives. Thinking through what you want to accomplish with online display will obviously help sort out what it should say and how it should say it.

OK, with that little disclaimer out of the way, let's get to the creative. Why does it suck? Well, first off, it's hardly ever aware of the content it is hanging out with. I'm not talking contextual ads here, just saying that display advertising needs to be aware of where it lives. At least it should know what site it's on and what people are there for. I mean, we spend a lot of time thinking about our consumer, right? We know what they like and don't like and roughly where they spend their time on the web. However, we give little or no thought to what they're actually doing once they get there. What content are they looking at? What's the difference between home-page visitors and lower-level visitors?

Most of the time we don't think about these questions because we're not given the opportunity. The math gets done early on and we figure out that we are going to do three variations so that's what we go with. It doesn't matter whether those three variations are going across a gossip, sports and gadget site as long as they fit the IAB guidelines. After all, standards exist so we can do less work, right?

Without thinking about where the display is sitting, the creative is left focusing on a totally-out-of-context consumer. The big problem I have with this is it pretty much gives up the biggest advantage the web has over other media: the ability to target smaller groups affordably with discrete messages. As soon as we go with a single message across all these sites we're left with a glorified TV ad.

As a side note, I feel like I'd be doing a disservice if I didn't mention that I understand that banner ads don't all need to be clicked on or interacted with; they can be quite effective acting in a similar way to billboards, embedding in our subconscious to hopefully affect some later decision.

So what is there to do about the dearth of creativity in the display space?

Well, I think there are a couple things to at least think about. First off, we're going to need to start doing more versions of display ads and at least doing custom ones for the larger sites. If you know you're designing something for, for instance, you would create a very different thing than if it were for Newsweek.

Second, by knowing what site it's running on, I believe we can start to design things that look like they belong a little more. Banner blindness is a well-documented phenomenon, but little has been written about why people ignore the ads. My suspicion is that it's in large part due to the fact that they look like they don't belong on the page. When there's a big orange ad amongst the black and white content of the New York Times it's kind of like wearing a big sign that says, "Don't pay attention to me!"

Now, I'm not suggesting that we should deceive users. After all I'd like nothing more than for display to be just as interesting as the content on the page (and yes, I know I'm not the first person to say that, but I don't care). What I'm suggesting is that if you want to grab someone's attention you need to do a slightly better job blending in. Try making something that looks like it belongs on the page and understands what content surrounds it.

With all that said, there are a few issues. First, it means we have to rethink the working/non-working splits. Second, this equation doesn't address the role of the publisher (which needs to adapt). Third, and most important, it doesn't even touch on whether you should be doing display advertising to begin with. But hey, can't get to everything in one article.

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Noah Brier is head of planning and strategy at the Barbarian Group. Read more of his thoughts at

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