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Where You Should Stick Your Ad and Why

Where You Should Stick Your Ad and Why Joseph Carrabis
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In this article:
Introduction
How attention works 
What's important to someone depends on what's happening in their life
A skyscraper misadventure 
Ads that work well within pages 
When ads go wrong 
Tarred by the broad brush 
What media buyers don't know is killing them 
Let's stop talking about "behavioral" 
Summary and bibliography 


Have you ever wondered why, when you're walking down a street in a familiar city, one thing catches your eye and another doesn't? Have you ever noticed how much more you see driving down the street when you're a passenger in a car than when you're the driver? How come people unfamiliar with rural settings wake at every sound and people experiencing a city for the first time lie awake listening to the unfamiliar cityscape?


Let me share a secret with you: everything catches your eye and ear -- indeed all your senses -- whether you're familiar with it or not. You see and respond to everything you see regardless of where and when you see it. Ditto to everything you hear. As one of my mentors told me, "People cannot not respond. Sometimes that response is to ignore the stimulus."


This article is about getting people to focus on a stimulus, specifically advertising on a web page. We'll be using five IAB ad placements for our examples:



  • 728x90 Leaderboard at the top of the page

  • 160x600 Wide Skyscraper and 120x600 Skyscraper both at the right of the page

  • 300x250 Medium Rectangle and 180x150 Rectangle both in the lower right of the page

We need to understand a little about what triggers what kind of response -- ignoring or focusing of attention, retention and cognition -- to start. The neurologic mechanisms of response are the same if you're travelling down a street, hearing a sound or browsing a web page.


Some of what I'll be sharing is material from previous columns on the mind-eye-brain system and elsewhere on the mind-senses-brain system because catching people's eyes and ears -- hence their hearts, minds and pocketbooks -- is what advertising is about.


The next part of this article is going to explain some of the science involved in ad placement. Regular readers know NextStage doesn't come from a traditional advertising/marketing paradigm. Readers finding this article with no knowledge of NextStage need to be aware of this fact.


The information in this article comes from studies in neuroscience, neuroeconomics, neuromarketing, and a host of other disciplines NextStage regularly focuses on.


Once you understand how the mind-eye-brain system works, then you begin to understand that traditional best practices may not be best practices after all. An abridged bibliography appears at the end of this column and a complete bibliography can be found in my blog. The bibliography in my blog points to research done by NextStage and others, the bibliography at the end of this article only points to material that can be found on iMedia Connection.
 
Next: How attention works


Joseph Carrabis is CRO and founder of NextStage Evolution and NextStage Global and founder of KnowledgeNH and NH Business Development Network. He was recently selected as a senior research fellow and board advisor for the Society for New Communications Research. Read full bio.

Return to Introduction


People are supposed to be good at blocking -- not looking -- at ads. Sorry, that's poppycock. You can't not see something that's in your visual field. You can consciously and non-consciously choose to ignore something. To do either, your mind-eye-brain system needs to acknowledge the ad's existence for you to know where not to look, what not to look at, et cetera.


People choose to focus on or ignore something only after the non-conscious mind has alerted the conscious mind that something does or doesn't deserve attention. The same is true for listening. The parent who can hear their child's troubled voice amid all the sounds on a playground, the lover who can isolate the walk of their partner among all those on a city street, are picking up myriad subtle cues that, when summed together, cause the non-conscious mind to signal the conscious mind "Pay attention."


Information that isn't in our direct focus -- like an ad on a web page -- that gets our attention is known as meaningful noise. Meaningful noise is something that would normally be considered an interference or distraction but can't be truly an interference or distraction because the noise was selected by the non-conscious as something worthy of notice.


The child's cry on a playground is a perfect example of this. You're talking with the other parents and all of a sudden the conversation becomes irrelevant. Your child needs you.


Whatever gets our attention is no longer a distraction because it got our attention. This is also why people tend to get upset or confused when non-priority items get their attention. The parent realizes the child's shriek was a squeal of delight and not a scream of pain, shrugs or shakes her or his head, and then returns to the original conversation.


What gets our attention is based on selection mechanisms that are strongly tied to culture, native language, age, gender, education, training, lifestyle and the list goes on. Understanding selection mechanisms requires studies in visual intelligence, observer mechanics, visual recognition theory, inattentional blindness, negative hallucination, significance effects… and this list is longer than most people care to know.


Fortunately, using selection mechanisms doesn't necessarily require understanding them in any great detail. What it all comes down to is actually quite simple:



  1. If you know enough about your target audience

  2. Then you know where to place meaningful noise in their visual field

  3. So that they will actually stop and focus on it rather than ignore it.

Stated more for the purposes of this article:



  1. If you know enough about your target audience

  2. Then you know where to place an ad on a page

  3. So that your audience stops what they're doing and pays favorable attention to the ad.

What you need to know equates to determining where, on the page, the audience needs to see certain kinds of information in order to accept that information as valid.


Next: What's important to someone depends on what's happening in their life


Joseph Carrabis is CRO and founder of NextStage Evolution and NextStage Global and founder of KnowledgeNH and NH Business Development Network. Read full bio. He was recently selected as a senior research fellow and board advisor for the Society for New Communications Research.

Return to How attention works


Consider luxury and necessity items. Luxury and necessity are usually considered as "luxury versus necessity," indicating that people think of them differently. Intuition might dictate that where the mind-eye-brain needs to see luxury and necessity items on a web page would be different.


The first part is quite accurate. Luxury and necessity items are very different. They are, in fact, polar opposites. An interesting trait of polar opposites is that they are the same thing from a psychological perspective.


In the mind, 180 degrees from a thing is the same thing. The example I give clients and students involves love and hate. People think love and hate are opposites, but they're not. Both are strong emotions directed at an individual or group. They are also self-definers because they allow the person to define themselves in relation to whatever or whomever it is they love or hate. They are, therefore, the same thing. The true opposite of love is the same as the opposite of hate: apathy.


This works itself out on a web page by having both luxury and necessity items appear (all things being equal) in banners (i.e. leaderboards). What about when all things aren't equal? Consider recently married people, definitely for the first time and often for the second. Different "luxury" and "necessity" filters are now in place. The new living situation, the new demands on time, space and money, rearrange what information gets through and what information gets blocked out.


The brain tells the mind-eye combination to look for "necessity" and "luxury" in different areas of the visual field because the non-conscious has created new filters for that kind of information. The visitor's experience of a web page is determined by a complex set of characteristics. Some of these characteristics come from what's on the page, the rest come from what's going on in the visitor's life when they encounter the page.


Next: A skyscraper misadventure

Joseph Carrabis is CRO and founder of NextStage Evolution and NextStage Global and founder of KnowledgeNH and NH Business Development Network. Read full bio. He was recently selected as a senior research fellow and board advisor for the Society for New Communications Research.

Return to What's important to someone depends on what's happening in their life


One of the first things NextStage discovered in this research was just how little people creating ads and placing ads knew about where their ads were going to end up. This is aptly demonstrated in this figure:


(click to enlarge)


Remember my writing that knowing where to place an ad to maximize ROI means knowing things like age, gender, education, training, lifestyle, et cetera, of the target audience? The first figure has an OnStar banner and a series of sponsored links as a right hand wide skyscraper.


These are both good ads in and of themselves. However, placing them on a page announcing the passing of a specific demographic's cultural icon is not so good.


People outside of the demographic who knew Don Herbert as Mr. Wizard will receive a very different emotional and psychological impact than people familiar with Don Herbert's work.


The question becomes, who is this page intended for and who are the ads intended for? The ideal is to have the ads' audience and the page's audience synchronized. I'm particularly amused by the top ad in the wide skyscraper, "How to Sleep More."


I don't think that's going to be Don's problem, nor do I think people who were familiar with Don Herbert are going to read about his passing and think "Yeah, that's what I need, a sleep aid!" Similarly, "Get the OnStar Treatment". Umm...you mean death? In both cases, I think I'll pass.


Strangely enough, the OnStar ad would have worked on this page as a wide skyscraper. A simple skyscraper metaphorically going from earth to heaven, richer blue on top than on the bottom to give the sense of ascension, would have done the trick of passing to the non-conscious mind "Don's okay, hence I can also be okay with OnStar". This treatment would have been very successful with the audience who'd come to the page to read about Don Herbert's passing.


Next: Ads that work well within pages


Joseph Carrabis is CRO and founder of NextStage Evolution and NextStage Global and founder of KnowledgeNH and NH Business Development Network. Read full bio. He was recently selected as a senior research fellow and board advisor for the Society for New Communications Research.

Return to A skyscraper misadventure


An example of ads and page working very well together is this second figure:


(click to enlarge)


People coming to this page will be from several demographics but will all have a very specific mindset, what NextStage recognizes as a Rich Persona. The entire page is meant to bypass intellectual appeals and go straight for the emotions.


The topmost ad, "Rescue Stories," is in visual conjunction with "Send an E-card and Spread the Word." The "$1 Shipping" is in visual conjunction with "Paw Print Store". "Fund Food for Animals" with "Last Day! Free Hope…."


As a design to achieve a specific goal, it doesn't get much better than this. People wanting to know how to design and place material in order to achieve a goal within a target audience should analyze this page as it's one of the best.


Ad Placement #3


This figure:


(click to enlarge)


…is an example of skyscraper synchronized with page but not necessarily the banner. The page's content is a column on being smart in the workplace. The skyscraper is a job board.


This is good placement because there's a high probability that people who want to be smart in the workplace might also be looking for career advancement. Western culture recognizes advancement as linear and usually in two directions; left to right or bottom to top. A skyscraper can subtly indicate career advancement in just this way.


But might people being smart in the workplace be simultaneously interested in a tire alignment? Is that what they're coming to the content for?


Next: When ads go wrong

Joseph Carrabis is CRO and founder of NextStage Evolution and NextStage Global and founder of KnowledgeNH and NH Business Development Network. Read full bio. He was recently selected as a senior research fellow and board advisor for the Society for New Communications Research.

Return to Ads that work well within pages


For this figure:


(click to enlarge)


...well...we're not sure. The content is incredible. The author is intelligent, lucid, knowledgeable and conversational. Although there's no image given, we're sure he's also handsome, stunning and virile.


This figure is also the first demonstration we have of a "box" style advertisement on a web page. What is good is that the banner colors are so completely different from the rest of the page that the eye is naturally drawn to it.


Not so with the box, and this is an example of conflicting ad composition. The banner is so overpowering a visual signal that the box is effectively ignored. Lastly, there is no indication that either ad is keyed to the page content, thus people coming for the content may simply ignore (defocus from) what's being advertised (best case scenario) or won't come back because the ads are too off-putting to validate the energy required to focus on the content (worst case scenario).

Ad Placement #5


This last figure is -- to me -- an example of the worst kind of banner-box advertising, design and combination:


(click to enlarge)


Two horizontal menus stacked vertically separated by things that might or might not be banner ads. This design is a navigational maelstrom because visitors are visually challenged to figure out what to click on to find what they're looking for.


Also note the small, gold colored, right most box near the bottom of the screen. This is one of three action items, the first two of which are for site-relevant content (sports). This right most item is an ad. This is a clever method to get visitors to investigate a screen target once. Unfortunately, it's a "fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me" type of thing. Visitors looking for relevant content will quickly become jaded and either not return or will have learned to ignore that area of screen content.


Next: Tarred by the broad brush

Joseph Carrabis is CRO and founder of NextStage Evolution and NextStage Global and founder of KnowledgeNH and NH Business Development Network. Read full bio. He was recently selected as a senior research fellow and board advisor for the Society for New Communications Research.

Return to When ads go wrong


We'll close this section of the column with this figure:


(click to enlarge)


Interestingly enough, both this and the figure on the bottom of the preceding page are TV station websites. Both suffer from similar ad placement problems.


TV stations, like their print journalism cousins, are increasingly driving people to their websites in order to increase advertising revenue. "For more on this story, go to http://www.xyz.com/ and click on the MNO link at the top of your screen" has become the modern day equivalent of "Film at 11:00." More and more print magazine and newspapers include web addresses so readers can find out more about specific stories. Rarely if ever do you see TV and print journalism websites driving visitors back to the tube or hard copy. This hasn't occurred with music radio stations but it has occurred with talk radio (NPR is an excellent example).


What we're observing in many of these examples is the broad brush of media buying. Buyers can buy ad placements in a "run of network" mode which usually provides lots of low quality exposure because the ad isn't relevant to the page's content. Increasingly sophisticated options include "run of site," "contextual advertising," "registration-based targeting" and others.


Next: What media buyers don't know is killing them

Joseph Carrabis is CRO and founder of NextStage Evolution and NextStage Global and founder of KnowledgeNH and NH Business Development Network. Read full bio. He was recently selected as a senior research fellow and board advisor for the Society for New Communications Research.

Return to Tarred by the broad brush


I'll start this section by stating that I'm sure there are existing ad placements that do very well. Let me also state that I was very surprised to find out how the media buying and planning process worked. I found out in conversations with Avenue A| Razorfish, Casale Media, FindMeFaster, ICON International, Underscore Marketing and others that agencies aren't told much about the material they're placing on a web page.


More accurately, they're not told things that I thought were obvious considerations: what does the ad look like? What else is on the page?


In some cases they're provided a product or product category and that's about all.


Let me ask if the following approach makes sense to you: I'm going to tell you what you're aiming at but I'm not going to tell you if you're using an arrow, a spear, a pistol, a rifle, a tank, a knife -- whatever -- to hit it. And I'm also not going to tell you what's between you and the target, hence what's going to get in the way of aiming and hitting the target.


However, I still want you hit the target with a very high degree of accuracy or I'll find someone else to take potshots for me.


Ad placement ROI could be astronomically better if media buyers and planners could answer a different set of questions. Here are some questions that might make no sense to agencies yet are revealing to cognitive psychologists and cultural anthropologists. The placement suggestions which follow them are from NextStage’s and related research:



  • Is the target audience active socially?

  • Do they have a strong social network?

  • Do they have a large (extended) social network?

Believe it or not, any of those questions when tied to gender strongly suggest the use of marketing to women with either a 300x250 Medium Rectangle or a 160x600 Wide Skyscraper, to men with either a 728x90 Leaderboard or a 120x600 Skyscraper.



  • Is the ad going on a personals site?

  • Is the target audience in a relationship with someone?

Questions like these are relevant because recent human functional neuroimaging studies of romantic attachment show that affection-based relationships are tied to reward seeking behavior.


This translates to marketing to females via either a 120x600 Skyscraper or a 300x250 Medium Rectangle, to men with either a 160x600 Wide Skyscraper or a 300x250 Medium Rectangle.


Thus both genders will respond more favorably to an ad on a personals site if the ad is a 300x250 Medium Rectangle than any other form.



  • How many times will the target audience experience this material in any form in a given time period?

This answers which placements should appear when during a given campaign and when responses to the campaign will begin (NextStage is currently working on a method to determine how many times an audience needs to encounter something in order to respond favorably to it).



  • Is there a social (viral) aspect to this campaign and if so, when will it be enacted?

This answers how often a given ad needs to appear in the target's visual field in order for the campaign's message to take hold.



  • Is there a blog or wiki element to this campaign?

Similar to the above, this answers how often a given ad needs to appear in the target's visual field and the order in the visual field hierarchy in which the material needs to appear.



  • If this is a multiphase campaign, how long after phase 1 does phase 2 begin?

This answers exactly what needs to appear in the ad and where in the visual field the ad needs to appear. Information (an ad) that repeatedly appears in a single position over time causes the meaning of the information to lose impact to those seeing it, what is called "wear out" in the trade.


Knowing when different elements in the same campaign go live strongly dictates where ads need to appear in order to increase recognition and reference in the target audience's mind.



  • What are the target audience's values (religious, ethnic, cultural, historical…)?

This answers where in the ad the branding element needs to appear because the ad itself is not the brand, it is a vector for conveying the brand and creating action associated with that brand.


My awareness of the gap between what NextStage's researchers would think to ask and what media buyers and planners could answer grew out of conversations at IMedia's Dec 06 Agency Summit in Scottsdale, Arizona, and documented in my blog post, Follow Up to "On the road again..."


As FindMeFaster CEO Matt Van Wagner said, "I definitely have a better idea of the audience than I ever had before."


Part of the fun of this research and developing the tool that grew out of it was figuring out what agencies knew that we could translate into data for the necessary calculations. But it's not an easy process.


Next: Let's stop talking about "behavioral"

Joseph Carrabis is CRO and founder of NextStage Evolution and NextStage Global and founder of KnowledgeNH and NH Business Development Network. Read full bio. He was recently selected as a senior research fellow and board advisor for the Society for New Communications Research.

Return to What media buyers don't know is killing them


I've written before that I don't accept the industry definition of "behavioral" …well, behavioral anything. This caused some amusing anecdotes to come from our ad placement research and resulting tool development. Icon International's Jim Meskauskas (also the media strategies editor here at iMedia) commented:


"Given that targeting online can be done behaviorally, it isn’t always necessary to have 'hard' demos to use for the purposes of target identification. In particular, the income demo select. Being able to have a 'Not Applicable' select for any demographic category would be good.  Sometimes things like income or number of children don’t matter."


I completely agree with Jim's comment as far as the industry understands behaviors, not so as people manifest behaviors. The difference deals with another $25 term I mentioned earlier, significance effects. The basic idea of significance effects is that the more exposure a person has to a logo or brand (for example), the more meaning that logo or brand has to that person. An example of this can be found in John Timmer's post The Psychology of Banner Ads.


How significance effects work is based strongly on things like size of household, income and several others. For example, an individual is considering a car purchase. Knowing that the individual earns US$65k/year and supports three children and a life partner or that the individual earns US$65k/year and is single is going to influence how they make decisions, hence whether or not the significance effects are positive or negative and where they need to be in the visual field so that they'll always be positive and never be negative.


The goal, of course, is to both create and place ads that drive action. This is done once there is sufficient recognition and reference in the target audience's mind to associate clicking on an ad with a desired, favorable outcome.


Again, gaining recognition and reference can be achieved many different ways. Knowing a great deal -- psycho-socially and psycho-culturally -- about your target audience can better your chances of placing your ad (even if you don't know much about it from a creative standpoint) where its significance to that audience will be highest.


Independent studies from Aalborg University and NextStage indicate that consumers see so many ads in a given web-day that media buyers and planners have only a few moments to generate attention and meaning.


Next: Summary and bibliography

Joseph Carrabis is CRO and founder of NextStage Evolution and NextStage Global and founder of KnowledgeNH and NH Business Development Network. Read full bio. He was recently selected as a senior research fellow and board advisor for the Society for New Communications Research.

Return to Let's stop talking about "behavioral"


Media buyers and planners need to know as much about the target group of an ad as possible. The more knowledge they have, the better their chances are for communicating the right message and for having that message acted upon by their target audience. At some level, the fact that knowing these cultural and psychonomic tidbits about your target audience might not be important belies the concepts behind product placement: such blasphemy!


NextStage's Ad Placement Tool, based on cultural and psychonomic target audience knowledge, is really nothing more than the science of product placement applied to the web.


My deep thanks to NextStage's Susan Carrabis, Bill Ford and Shauna Shaw for helping with the writing of this paper, to Avenue A| Razorfish, Casale Media, FindMeFaster (using the tool for SEO work), ICON International, Underscore Marketing and others for helping NextStage develop and perfect the Ad Placement Tool, and for allowing NextStage to acknowledge their experience with, training on and use of the tool in this column. Also special thanks to Avenue A| Razorfish's Debrianna Obara, VP of Media, for reviewing this paper and her invaluable suggestions.


Coming soon:
• Listen to AllBusiness.com's Chris Bjorklund interview Joseph Carrabis on The Importance of Viral Marketing


Additional resources for this article:



Return to Introduction


Joseph Carrabis is CRO and founder of NextStage Evolution and NextStage Global and founder of KnowledgeNH and NH Business Development Network. Read full bio. He was recently selected as a senior research fellow and board advisor for the Society for New Communications Research.

Joseph Carrabis is Founder and CRO of The NextStage Companies, NextStage Global and NextStage Analytics, companies that specialize in helping clients improve their marketing efforts and understand customer behavior. He's also applied neuroscience,...

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Comments

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Commenter: Joseph Carrabis

2008, August 28

Rob, Sorry I didn't see this until now. "Many actionable solutions"? Well, we do have that tool that determines where ads should be placed based on user responses to some questions.
Are there some general rules? How general would you like them? "For boomer males do x except when marketing high end cars or when there's a slightly younger female in the creative or the product is an OTC or ..."
I know the goal is to make things as simple as possible and sometimes the simplest solution results in the 30 or so questions we currently ask (and I'm happy to learn there's a simpler solution with as high an accuracy). This isn't a defense (as I hope you'll agree I'm always working to improve things and enjoy discovering alternate methods that simplify things and freely recommend them).
Developing the tool and this article was quite an experience for me. I was shocked to learn about the disconnects that exist(ed) in the system -- who didn't talk to whom, who didn't know what and couldn't find out. Something as simple as not knowing where (on what sites) the creative would show up, hence essentially shooting in the dark and hoping you were at least shooting in the direction of the target. You reference this in your "hysterical/horrifying ad/story combinations".
"...there are still a number of moving parts that need to be addressed..." Agreed. And quite willing to discuss.
And thanks for reading my column. - Joseph

Commenter: Rob Graham

2007, June 22

I enjoyed the article and found is very interesting. I'm a bit biased perhaps as Joseph is a friend of mine. However, from a practicality standpoint I'm not sure he was able to offer many actionable solutions. Joseph has accurately pointed out that there are a number of shortcomings regarding ad placement that few of us would dispute. However, I don't think he is able to, not would I expect it, to offer up some sort of unifying solution here. I think the real challenge is to get advertisers to think about the benefits of really planning ad buys and ad placement and not just defaulting to choosing a group of silos to push content into. Also keep in mind that most of the logic engines behind contextual advertising still haven't been tweaked enough to avoid the sometime hysterical/horrifying ad/story combinations that result. The article wasn't too long and it brought up some excellent points for media planning. However, there are still a number of moving parts that need to be addressed further before the industry can really act upon a lot of these insights.