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Online ads done right

By Alan Jacobson, Brass Tacks Design

Does anyone like online ads?
  • Advertisers hate them because they're ineffective: Click-through rates are less than one percent.
  • Advertising sales reps hate them because they're difficult to sell. See why, above.
  • Publishers hate them because they aren't generating enough revenue to make up for the shortfall in print advertising.
  • Advertising designers hate them because the most frequently used shapes are too shallow or too narrow to work with.
  • Webmasters hate them because they detract from the overall appearance of their pages.
  • And most important, users hate them because they're annoying, distracting and useless.
Clearly, everyone will benefit if these problems are solved. But before I offer solutions, let's see how we got here so we can avoid repeating these mistakes.

Selling today's media with yesterday's pricing model
Newspaper sites sell online advertising based on rates measured in CPM (cost per thousand) views, which are sometimes called impressions.

Look closely at the word impression, and you'll see the word "press" – as in the 15th-century invention. Newspapers charge for online ads as if they were printing them. In contrast, Google – the world's largest advertising company with a market cap of roughly $100 billion – charges based on clicks (CPC) rather than CPM. With Google, advertisers only pay when their ad is clicked, regardless of how many times it is displayed.

Google's cost model leverages all the advantages of online. Newspaper's cost model leans on Gutenberg. It's worked for newspapers for hundreds of years, but it isn't working for online advertisers today.

Mommy, where do leaderboards come from?
Can you remember what the ads looked like on the first newspaper Web sites? I'm sure you can't, because the first newspaper Web sites had no advertising. Back in the early '90s, when the first newspapers began posting online, there was a cultural prohibition against advertising on the Internet. Many believed the Internet should be non-commercial.

That notion slipped away by the mid-'90s and newspapers began adding advertising to their pages. But these pages had not been designed with ads in mind, so the ads were shoe-horned onto the pages, first at the bottom, then at the tops and down the sides.

Banners and buttons begat leaderboards and skyscrapers. But these, too, were squeezed onto the tops and edges of Web pages. And that's why online ads appear in an awkward array of shallow and skinny sizes and shapes.

Multimedia gone wrong
Advertisers are limited by awkward sizes and shapes, so they've escalated their war on users with a never-ending series of annoying and intrusive techniques. As is the case in most wars of aggression, it's the aggressor that loses.

The battle for users' eyeballs began with animated GIFs. Then advertisers fortified their flintlocks with Flash. These animated ads look great by themselves, but two or more together create a shouting match: “LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME!”

Users responded like Dr. Seuss's Grinch: “Oh the noise! Noise! Noise! Noise!”

So advertisers served up pop-ups. Web browsers responded with pop-up blockers. Now Web sites offer video and advertisers have responded with pre-roll – this decade's version of the much-hated pop-up. And don't forget the interstitials – those ads that get between the user and the page the user wants to see. This latest contrivance is bound to spawn 2009's hottest Christmas gift: "Tivo for Web," so users can skip past the interstitials.

The battle for the user's attention has produced an unintended consequence: Newspaper Web sites have trained users to ignore online ads.

It's gonna take a lot to undo this damage. The sooner we start, the better.

According to Dave Chase at, "The only path to long-term economic viability is to directly address the revenue problem. The level of innovation happening on the production and funding side of the equation needs to be matched by innovation on the revenue side."


Change the pricing model from CPM to CPC.
CPC works for Google. It works for Google's advertisers. It will work for newspaper Web sites. Ken Doctor makes the same point in the second half of this post.

Forget about the user. Focus on the advertiser.
Webmasters have spent more than a decade building audience, with the assumption that with audience comes commensurate revenue. But this strategy has failed to deliver the revenue newspaper companies need. Einstein defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." It's time to try something completely different.

If revenue is the number-one goal and if advertisers are the sole source of revenue, then the advertisers' message must be primary. Here's how to make it so:

1. Make the advertising message the primary visual on each page. To do so, sites will need to migrate away from the ineffective IAB standard ad sizes and shapes to create sites that serve up ads like this or this or this.

2. Limit advertising messages to one per page. Adopting this strategy kills two birds with one stone: First, it provides advertisers with the best possible environment for their message. Second, it provides a better experience for the user by eliminating all the noise.

But serving up fewer ads per page doesn't mean serving up fewer ads per visit if sites are redesigned to increase page views. But first we need to change the current paradigm:

Too many users visit the homepage – then exit – before viewing interior pages because the homepage meets their information needs. And webmasters put too many ads on homepages in hopes of reaching these endusers.

This is a self-defeating strategy that pits advertisers against each other and creates a chaotic environment for endusers.

2a.To increase page views, homepages should be redesigned to be less comprehensive. Homepages should provide a "taste" of a site's content, rather than a satisfying meal, like this or this.

This strategy will force users to visit interior pages to meet their information needs. These interior pages will provide a more effective environment for advertising, like this or this or this.

2b.Sites must get stickier to increase page views. Three strategies for boosting stickiness are described here.

3. Serve up ads on a contextually sensitive basis, rather than willy-nilly. Users understand the difference between editorial and advertising content, but content providers often forget that both news and ads can have practical value for endusers. Either kind of content can be useful if it meets the information wants and needs of endusers. Newspaper sites know how to serve up related editorial content, even if most aren't doing it. Google knows how to serve up related ad content. Once again, newspaper sites need to follow the leader.

Change you can believe in

Will any of this work? That's difficult to say until someone tries it. But here's what we do know:
  • The current ad strategy isn't working for anyone.
  • A print product already exists that seems to put the advertiser first, without shortchanging the enduser in any way: it's called The New Yorker.
The New Yorker provides the best possible environment for its editorial content and advertising content, and the best possible experience for its readers and advertisers. Here's how:
  • Navigation is consistent. Everything is anchored and easy to find.
  • Full-page display ads are the primary visual element on every major spread.
  • Ads don't interfere with editorial, and vice versa.
  • Ads don't compete with each other.
Ironically, the online edition of The New Yorker seems to dispense with all the niceties of its print edition: the homepage has the same chaotic look of most newspaper sites and the interior pages never give those beautiful print ads their due.

Is it any wonder that most advertisers still prefer print?



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