After reading Chris Anderson’s piece in Wired about the web being dead, long live the Internet, I got a really uneasy feeling. Banner advertising has always been the weird step child of advertising. Few creatives wants to do them, clients don’t know how to approach it and nobody clicks on the ads. I always argued that it’s the ultimate test of stripped-down creativity, with lots of constraints, just 40K to play with and super-restricted space. It’s like creating wonderful music out of an old synth; just a few dials, but turn the right ones at the right time and wonderful things happen. On occasion, that can happen with banners. But maybe we have all missed the real problem. The first trouble with display ads is that people don’t know how to look at them. I believe the reason for this is the creative and the instruction for interacting with the creative is all over the place.
Right now, internet display advertising is like driving through different towns where every town has invented their own traffic sign system. You need to look really carefully at every sign and interpret what they mean instead of brainstem reactions that would come with a unified signage system. Learn more, Click here, Fold There, plus signs, single arrows, >>, all in a box, or not. Underlined. Bold. !!!!
We are just not sure what to do. So, in over 99% of instances, we do absolutely nothing at all.
This is connected to a second problem with display advertising: that there is no clear way of knowing if you will leave the site or interact where you are. In the early days it made sense that you left the site you were on and went to the advertisers’ websites. That was how you used the web back then, hence the idea of ‘surfing’. Now people are on fewer and fewer sites and are reluctant to leave where they are. They’re also afraid of viruses and malware.
Is there a solution? I propose we separate creative from instruction.
I propose we create a clear set of universal instructions letting users know if they are staying on a site or leaving it. Or, to push it even further, what if every ad had two standard buttons at the same location, “Save for Later” (like Instapaper for display) and “Go to Website”. That way ads would behave more like we use the web today. A Universal System for display, in which everyone knows what to expect. A system that respects the user.
Few have got this right to date. Google come to mind, with their Adwords text ads (& look at the impact of a user-focused design approach on their revenues). With Google, the parameters are tight and everyone knows what to expect. Facebook is also on to this with their standardized format that provides a static picture and lots of text. These are fairly low on the creative side, but I think the creative part of a banner can be wonderfully executed through animation, API interaction or just a plain old static picture that says it all. Whatever it is, the instructions should be standard, simple and clear.
This is one reason why I have joined the IAB and their Rising Stars forum, to drive forward this question of standardization. It might point to the way forward for creative AND functional display ads on the web that users know how to interact with. But there are a lot of people who need to agree and compromise to make this happen.
So to save advertising on the web, who is willing to come to the table?