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10 keys to a homepage takeover ad that works

10 keys to a homepage takeover ad that works Michael Estrin

Before you read this, open up a new tab in your browser. Enter the url for your favorite publisher and ask yourself this question: Who brought you the content?

No matter where you went, there’s a good chance you don’t have a single answer to that question. In all likelihood, no single brand brought you that experience because homepage takeovers -- while they are powerful tools -- are the exception to the rule. The tactic requires a relatively large budget, stellar coordination between brand, agency and publisher, and creative worth talking about. And those are just the standard barriers to entry when it comes to a takeover.

Once you’ve got the green light for a campaign that involves a takeover, there are dozens of issues to consider, which is why we’ve tapped some takeover veterans to give us the do’s and don’ts for a successful homepage takeover.

Do: Maintain control over media and creative
It's your campaign, and in a lot of ways, the weak economy makes it a buyer's world. So, whatever you do, you must maintain control of your creative vision, says Ross McNab, director of digital advertising solutions at Eyeblaster.

If you can't see your client's vision all the way through to the publisher's page, a takeover probably isn't worth the cost or the headache. While that may sound harsh, McNab explains that the point is to find a way to seamlessly integrate the brand's message with the publisher's style.

McNab points to FedEx's "Paper Crumple" as a good example of a creative strategy that gave the advertiser control of its message (for 15 seconds) before returning the user to the publisher's normal screen. In this case, The Economist's homepage "crumples" into a piece of digital "paper" shortly after the site loads. Click here to take a look.

Do: Swing for the fences
You're paying for the whole page, so it only makes sense to get your money's worth, says Dimitry Ioffe, CEO of The Visionaire Group. But that doesn't just mean doing a takeover that is big and intrusive, it means that the agency and the brand should push the creative envelope to come up with an ad that blurs the line between message and content to create a wholly unique creation.

Here's an example of what Ioffe means.

For this homepage takeover promoting "The Day The Earth Stood Still," FOX literally drove a digitized truck across the MySpace homepage, momentarily obliterating the site's familiar landing page. Even one of MySpace's icons got in on the act by tracking the truck with a spotlight projected out of the figure's head.

While the page quickly returned to normal, the impact was hard to miss. For a few seconds, one message was so big that it didn't just obscure MySpace, it essentially destroyed it (if only temporarily). Although that may sound like a bit much for a run-of-the-mill campaign, it's important to remember that a homepage takeover is anything but routine. In the final analysis, a takeover is an event, which means that the creative had better be out of the ordinary, and (ideally) worthy of a user hitting the refresh button to see it one more time.  

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Do: Ask about dayparting
Not all budgets are created equally, but a smaller budget doesn't mean that a homepage takeover has to be out of the question. According to Kyle Johnson, product manager at Compete, advertisers should talk to publishers about running takeovers for twelve or six hours, rather than the whole day.

While dayparting will lower the total reach on a given site, it's likely that a publisher that has strong data on when the most engaged users typically visit the site will be able to steer the advertiser to its premium audience at the right time. Yes, the results may not be as spectacular, but according to Johnson, time-constrained takeovers are a good way for smaller advertisers to play in a bigger pond.

Don't: Assume that everything will happen as planned
A takeover isn't a simple endeavor. You can't just sign the contract and fire off the creative at the end of the day and expect perfection. And even when you work around the clock, you should expect some obstacles, says Lance Leasure, managing director for Catalysis.

"You may have a well seasoned crack team on your end, but often you're dealing with a disgruntled team on the other end who isn't necessarily eager to help make you look good," Leasure explains.

The solution, according to Leasure, is to remember that all parties involved need a good product at the end of the day. And that means the agency should always try to play nice with the publisher (and vice versa). But it also means that the agency -- when necessary -- might have to step in to help on all levels when obstacles present themselves, rather than stopping at the water's edge of its deliverables.

Don't: Let homepage takeovers fly solo
You get a lot of bang for your buck with a homepage takeover, but the tactic should never be used in isolation, according to Eyeblaster's Ross McNab.

Like any tactic, a homepage takeover needs to be part of a larger media strategy if it's going to succeed. Consider this example for the release of the "Tomb Raider Underworld" video game.

While it's easy to focus on the page, the effectiveness of the takeover owes a lot to timing (the takeover launched close to the game's release date) and a multiplatform media campaign that primed the audience to expect a full-throttle message by heightening the anticipation associated with the game's debut.

Don't: Shout without permission
If you've ever loaded a web page and then instantly scrambled to adjust your volume, you know that audio ads can be the bane of a user's existence -- if they launch without a trigger.

"Many people use their PCs at work and can be surprised by unexpected sound when landing on a site's homepage,” says Sheila Buckley of Weather Channel Interactive. "Users can have a negative reaction to an advertisement if it creates a jarring experience or something the consumer is not used to."

That's not to say that audio is out altogether. On the contrary, audio-enabled ads can be quite effective. But advertisers who use audio are most likely to succeed when they ask the user for permission to make noise.

Don't: Work with auto-refresh pages
A lot of publishers set their homepage to auto-refresh every few minutes. While that's a perfectly valid tactic for a publisher, it can be a thorn in the side of a homepage takeover, says Jed Breger of Beeby Clark + Meyler.

According to Breger, auto-refresh pages will likely result in inflated impressions, meaning that advertisers will end up paying more for their campaign. And to make matter's worse, auto-refresh can also wreak havoc on the takeover's creative, which means that your ad may fail to load properly.

The best advice, says Breger, is to work with the publisher and make sure that the site's homepage isn't set to auto-refresh when your campaign is running.

Don't: Assume uniform specs
Recently, The Online Publisher's Association launched an initiative to help standardize so-called "super-sized" ad units. While that undertaking will do a lot to help advertisers and publishers get on the same page, it is only just rolling out this summer, and even then, advertisers should expect all publishers to have the same specs.

Simply put, there is nothing standard about a homepage takeover right now, says Dimitry Ioffe, CEO of The Visionaire Group.

"Big homepage takeovers are always changing from the publisher side, so make sure you're always asking and starting with the correct specs," Ioffe explains. "Always request the latest publisher demos of the custom unit, too, to see how others have treated the space."

Here are two examples illustrating Ioffe's point. Click here for a takeover on IGN promoting "X-Men Origins Wolverine." The campaign is no longer live, but the users who clicked the "view trailer" button were redirected to the movie's website to watch clips. By contrast, the same publisher made an entirely different spec available for "My Bloody Valentine (click here). In the second example, the publisher's changed specifications allowed users to actually view the trailer on the IGN page.

According to Ioffe, advertisers will save time, money, and headaches if they remember that today's specs might not be around tomorrow given the speed with which publishers adjust their websites.

Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.

Michael Estrin is freelance writer. He contributes regularly to iMedia, Bankrate.com, and California Lawyer Magazine. But you can also find his byline across the Web (and sometimes in print) at Digiday, Fast...

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