We're sick of Punch the Monkey. Really, nobody wants to punch the stupid moving monkey. We mostly want to punch the creative executive who thought that was a clever way to sell a brand. The same goes for that strobe light that you call a banner, causing epileptic fits the world over.
Banner ads like these are annoying, and they make it harder for reputable brands to convey their messages within the online sphere. But it doesn't have to be this way. Today, marketers have access to more-sophisticated methods for creating more artful, creative, smart, innovative and even effective rich media banners. In this article, top minds in the online advertising field discuss the creative rules by which they live.
Know thine customer
The way we read online has changed significantly since the time when seizure-inducing banners were the norm. "I think people do a lot less reading, and they do a lot more skimming," says David Clarke, managing partner of BGT Partners. This skimming behavior means a lot of us can simply filter out the banners on a given web page.
"We don't have TiVo for the web yet, but people have it in their heads," says Patrick Young, co-founder of Jetset Studios. Thus, it's an advertiser's worst nightmare: banner-blindness. And that means no clickthrough. Plus, back in the day, people browsed more leisurely, and ads had a little more time to stick. Now, advertisers only have moments -- no more than a few seconds -- to grab a person's attention online.
The starting line
So, with such a dismissive audience, where does a poor creative exec start? First of all, remember that online banners can be unique. "You have a medium that can entertain, can achieve results, can reward users, can create loyalty and can generate revenue off a banner," according to Shervin Samari, executive creative director at Omelet. "And it would be a shame if they just take a print ad and put it on a banner and moved some of the type around."
When starting a campaign for a new client, Clarke at BGT Partners says marketers need to consider the goal of the client. Is the company trying to drive sales of a product? Inform the audience of new features? Raise brand awareness?
Reid Carr, president of Red Door Interactive, says that creating a direct response banner ad means finding the right elements for a given brand, arranging them in a graphically pleasing way and then testing multiple versions until you find what works. But when creating ads designed to boost brand awareness, he says, you need to focus far more on the emotional content of the banner. But regardless of the company's goal, there are a few through lines to remember. "What we're trying to do is complement the experience, complement the feeling, create a visual perception of quality," Carr says.
Julie Hatlem, creative executive at Ovation Marketing, adds, "We have to make sure our message is simple and clear. You don't have a lot of time in this environment to catch their attention, so keeping it clear and concise is important."
The push-pull dynamic
Since online habits have changed, online advertising must change as well. Despite wide broadband acceptance, traditional 30k banners are still the limit for most publishers, making it very difficult to push the envelope. And although marketers should never be interactive simply for the sake of being interactive, it's when creative execs get to play in rich media -- incorporating a variety of tricks, Flash animation, streaming video, etc. -- that things get interesting. But to create effective rich media, it's crucial to understand the relationship between the banner and the user.
"I feel like Punch the Monkey was kind of the beginning of where we're at today as far as being able to use [a banner] as a two-way avenue," says Ken Martin, CCO of BLITZ. "When you look at the process one would go through to create this, I mean, really it's a permission-based approach versus a distraction approach. The distraction element is there to some degree, but you need to stand out some way."
The push-pull dynamic trusts users to click on the banner with the promise of a challenge or a reveal of information. "You're trying to pull them into a gaming-like activity that feels that they can engage with the brand without having to commit to go somewhere. It's that meeting point," Martin says.
"With an interactive banner, you have a tremendous opportunity to have that 'a-ha' moment, to give that control to the user and let them discover that 'a-ha' moment," Samari says.
The "a-ha" moment feeds consumers' sense of discovery, pulling them into an interaction with the banner and thus starting the conversation. "It's all about giving that control to the user and trusting the element of discovery is going to be much more powerful and lasting than if we were just to blast our message down their throat," Samari adds.
Like today's 30-second TV spots, banner ads have to go beyond simply shilling for a product. "Try to come up with a textual narrative that kind of asks a question. It needs to be very brief, provocative," says Young, who believes the rich media of today is analogous to the point at which TV commercials started to get irreverent. As he puts it, "The way that you're saying something is as important as what you're saying."
Instead, he advocates something akin to postmodern advertising: self-referential and story-based. Because consumers are accustomed to seeing many banners on a page, only the ads that really play with their expectations and surprise them are going to get their attention. For example, Young recalls one of Apple's Mac-PC banners that ran along the side of The New York Times website, in which the Mac and PC characters responded to bad Vista reviews printed on the top 728x90 banner. "There's a story going on within it, but the fact that they're breaking it over these two banners is playing with the actual medium itself. It's a commentary on the medium itself, which is kind of breaking that fourth wall," he says.
Young says such ads serve a double purpose: "You get people's attention, but also, the message underneath is that this product is innovative or original or so savvy that it understands how done you are with regular banner ads."
But he offers a few words of caution: The most innovative ad units can also be the most annoying. BLITZ's Martin agrees, saying, "There's always this urge to do something a little bit more intense, a little more aggressive online." But you have to find a sweet spot, he adds. Be too jarring, and the user will suddenly find a very good reason to close Firefox.
The simpler the content, the better
Although opinions as to best practices for banner content vary depending on whom you speak to, many creative execs emphasize simplicity and minimalism. For example, Martin believes that the amount of content on a banner should be similar to what is seen on billboards. The general rule of thumb for billboards is that they should contain no more than six or seven words, and the same goes for banners, he says. That minimalist tendency should extend to interactivity and gaming as well.
"You want it to be something simple," Martin says. "You don't want to have to have instructions for the banner. It should be intuitive and primordial enough to where the target audience can just engage with it." He compares banner interactivity to that of simple games we might have played in preschool -- like stacking blocks and ripping paper.
Although creative execs agree that animation is an essential part of the banner medium, use of animation is not always necessary or even a good idea. "If you're at a textual site, you go with animation," Martin says. "If you're at a site with more interactivity, you need something more static." By being the inverse, the banner stands out. "You don't want to compete," he says -- and sometimes that means going static.
For direct response ads, Ovation Marketing's Hatlem says banners should emphasize benefits rather than features. "That tends to be the more emotional appeal and draws more attention," she says. Hatlem also notes that it's often useful to use imagery of people, even at the expense of not showing the product. "People tend to gravitate toward images of people."
Creative executives generally agree that emotional appeal is important in the quest to connect with users via banner ads. In light of the current financial crisis, Clarke says, "You see a lot of economically focused ads that tug on the heart strings." Although such messaging isn't a new approach in advertising, it's worth remembering.
And although Young notes that comedy within the confines of 30k is tough to achieve -- because of the limited space for setup and payoff -- humor in banners is also a winning strategy. However, the laughs have to be appropriate for the brand.
Size and shape
In light of the variety of potential banner shapes and sizes, it's important to consider which designs work best in which banners. "We're looking at the dimensions of the space and figuring out the best way to tell that same story," Jetset's Young says. "So a 728x90, which is very wide and short, is a very different space to try to tell a story. It really supports more copy than images, because you just don't have a lot of height."
He points out that banners with dimensions more akin to TV screens, such as 300x250 banners, are best-suited to handle both images and copy. It's like having a mini-TV in the browser. But go too small, and there's only so much you can do. "A 160x100 is sort of limiting in another way because it's not as friendly to copy; it's really more image friendly," Young says.
With a lot of major brands, the look and feel of banners are often going to be dictated by previous marketing material. But sometimes, creative execs get a chance to really mix things up.
"One of the things that really sets good design apart from bad design is your ability to manage the typography," Carr says. "A lot of digital agencies don't care as much about it because they're thinking about what the words say, not the way the words say it." But he adds that marketers need to consider whether the words on a banner are shouting at consumers or speaking to them. Are they using a classic military font or some form of serif font? The difference a font can make when using the exact same words is striking, Carr notes. And although marketers may have to stay within their brands' fonts, it's likely that they can find complementary typography options that add something significant to the banners' messages.
Like fonts, a brand generally dictates the colors of a banner. However, designers can use complementary colors that take advantage of current trends in politics, fashion or seasons to enhance a message. Current fashionable colors include green because of its association with the environmental movement. And in October -- which is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month -- pink was a popular and meaningful color. But be aware that certain colors, such as bright neons, are eye-catching, but they are also distracting and unappealing. Lose them.
Click and land
The final frame of a banner ad -- which Young calls the most important of all frames -- has to contain a clear call-to-action for the user. "Just a simple click here seems to work best, not to try to overdo the message or make it confusing," Hatlem says. And once you get that click, you need to follow through on whatever you promised.
"The banner is the beginning of an experience," Samari says. "It's really important when they leave the banner and go to the next step that they see continuity in the look and feel." So don't just make your homepage your default landing page for all banners. Instead, the banner and its landing page have to be related on a stylistic and textual level.
BLITZ's Martin agrees. "In a very sophisticated campaign, you can find yourself creating a unique landing page per media unit, per banner unit, just to keep the integrity across," he says.
As Hatlem puts it, "We want to make sure we're taking them to a landing page that specifically outlines that product or service and gives them the immediate satisfaction, rather than surfing all over your website for something."
With its amazing flexibility, rich media provides an opportunity for brands and their agencies to capture the attention of consumers. But it's an opportunity that is changing every day. Like the 30-second TV spot, what worked yesterday in banners may not work today. Punch the Monkey doesn't really work anymore -- thank goodness. So you have to innovate. Break a few rules, and follow a few others. And -- as Martin wisely recommends -- whatever you do, don't assume that what worked this time will work next time.
Blaise Nutter is a freelance writer.