Hotwired in 1994
This is the world’s first banner ad. It was created in 1994 for the telecoms giant AT&T; in the US. It ran on a site called Hotwired, and was designed to slot into a vacant space to the right of the logo at the top of the page.
Incredibly, it had a click-through rate of 78%. Can you imagine running a display ad campaign with such a high CTR today? Of course, it may have just been the novelty, but still...78%!
Those early banner ads fuelled the first dot com boom. Some say they were in part responsible for the crash too, because so many business plans depended on banner ads delivering incredible returns to advertisers, who would in turn put ever greater funds into promoting their products online.
It didn’t work out that way. CTR's have dropped dramatically year on year. They’ve even halved in the last four years. In fact - the average click-through rate today, according to the latest stats from DoubleClick/Google, is less than 0.07% in the UK. And the trend is heading one way: down.
Of course, the advertising industry has not sat idly by and watched their campaigns crash and burn.
Instead, they’ve created ever more disruptive ads to make web users sit up and pay attention. Ads that expand when you go near them, that hover over content you’re trying to read, that slide over the top of videos you want to watch, that follow you around the web wherever you go.
And consumers have responded, by installing ad blocker software in their millions. Adblock Plus for Firefox has over 10 million active users. Wow. Do you think consumers might be trying to tell us something?
But the problem goes even deeper than that. Because the biggest problem advertisers face is not consumer irritation, it’s consumer apathy. Most people don’t click on ads because most people don’t notice them.
Jakob Nielsen has done some fascinating research into this issue. Using eye tracking devices first developed to identify the best position to place products in supermarkets, Nielsen has run studies with panels of web users and analysed where people look on the page, as illustrated to the right.
The conclusion? People look at the content, not at the ads. In fact the findings were so pronounced Nielsen coined the phrase ‘banner blindness’ to describe his findings, and stated the brutal truth: “Users almost never look at anything that looks like an advertisement.”
This issue is even more pronounced on mobile devices. Visit a standard web page with an iPhone and you can’t even decipher the banners – and then you tap on the content, instantly rendering anything in the margins invisible.
Buttons, Not Banners
I used to work for a company that both advertised on other sites and accepted ads onto our own. Sitting on both sides of the fence gave an insight into trends for both advertisers and publishers, and it was alarming. Put simply, we had to work harder just to stand still.
And so in the early stages of developing Respond we started to think – why are using a 17 year old format anyway? Why are we placing ads in the very places where people are least likely to look? Why are we making ads that are big, bold and graphical when they are the very signals people use to filter out the noise, to separate the ads from the content they came for?
We started to look at what the world’s most successful publishers use to drive conversions. And we noticed something strange. When publishers want to get people to undertake their most important actions – to register, to subscribe, to share, to like, to buy – they don’t use large animated graphics. They use simple call to action buttons.
It was a lightbulb moment. What if the banner ad and all its many variations is not the right way to sell? What if buttons, not banners, are the way to go?
Engage without leaving the page
The way ads look isn’t the only problem plaguing the industry.
How many times have you clicked on a link and not got round to viewing the open page? Or given up before the page has even finished loading? Or just not clicked at all because you don’t want to be taken away from the page you have chosen to visit?
The interruptive nature of most online ads is a real issue. After all, why should you have to leave the page to engage with an advertiser? It’s like walking through a department store, pausing to admire a pair of shoes on the way to the cafe, and then being forced to leave the store, cross the street, and climb a flight of stairs if you want to take a closer look. That’s crazy.
We wanted to cut through all the barriers that stand in the way of a sale. So we starting thinking about how we could deliver campaigns instantly, in an overlay, right there on the original page.
We started working on what became known as Respond just over a year ago. We follow agile principles, which means we went out and met with our potential customers at the first opportunity to get their feedback on our idea, and we started developing the product incrementally, releasing new versions early and often.
We knew that to be effective the Respond call to action buttons had to be relevant, so we introduced three key aspects – context, location and device. If you’re reading an article about a trip to New York in London on an iPhone, we might serve a British Airways button that states "Book a flight from Heathrow".
When you click the button instead of taking you through to a landing page, we might serve the campaign in a mobile optimised HTML5 overlay, so you engage with the advertiser without leaving the page.
Find out more about how over 150 advertisers are running campaigns throug Respond, from Nike, Dell and Dating Direct through to Disney, Microsoft and British Airways - Visit RespondHQ today.