5 Reasons BuzzFeed Is Wrong on Banner Ads

Tim Dunn is director of mobile at Roundarch Isobar, follow him at @timmcdunn 

It’s generally wise to take the words of BuzzFeed president Jon Steinberg seriously when he makes pronouncements on the future of digital marketing. Recently, he attacked the humble banner advert, stating, “It’s the end of direct; banners have been terrible for 18 years.” Yet strangely, he was not able to produce a series of cat gifs to support his claim.

As a digital creative, I know there is little love for the banner ads, and there are plenty of creatives who will avoid even interviewing for roles where online advertising is going to be a part of their daily life.

That said, I don’t think it’s quite yet time to pronounce the banner dead. Here are five observations that might help reinforce the value of a much-maligned format.

It’s not all about the click-through rate.

Digital people are often obsessed with justifying our activities through measurement. We feel the need to quantify everything constantly – and this can lead to us measuring the wrong thing.

Our obsession with CTR and engagement ignores one of the main reasons for scattering banners across the Web: driving awareness. No one ever clicked through a TV ad, but that’s not to say it didn’t do its job. Awareness and brand recall are driven by the frequency of impressions served across any channel, and online is critical to that mix. If you see a banner — especially a good one — that counts toward your overall awareness of the brand (click-through or not).

The funnel has a top as well as a bottom.

The argument against banners often goes like this: “Leading with content marketing generates much stronger leads and engagement.” Of course it does, but the point is that delivering engagement marketing to an audience who is not familiar with your brand is putting the cart before the horse. If an audience doesn’t have a basic favorable association of your brand, you’re less likely to have the credibility when launching a direct-engagement message.

Banners are cheap.
Steinberg cites the industry average for click-throughs as being about 0.2 percent, while sponsored posts on BuzzFeed can be double that. Double? And you’re bragging?* Creating sponsored or original content requires a much greater amount of effort and headspace from marketing teams, compared to a very simple banner campaign, where assets are quickly generated and trafficked and optimized by machines across a huge range of networks instantly. When you take the set-up, contracting, management and measurement of these partnerships as part of the equation, your additional ROI looks to be quickly eroded.

Content has borders.
The cultural relevance of content is often very proscribed to certain countries, so for those of us needing to get a message out on a global basis, it’s going to be either impossible, or extremely laborious, to do so through content partnerships. BuzzFeed’s a great example – they’re big news here, have some cut-through in the U.K., but in France, China or Brazil? Not so much.

Banners are now mobile.

You may have not clicked an online banner for a while, or you may have been using AdBlock for so long you forget they exist, but mobile banners enjoy click-throughs between 2 and 10 times the online rate, and with the mobile market growing fast, that lifts the overall success on a CTR metric. Of course, much of the impact in mobile is about the creative, and with a range of more interactive formats, you have huge license to do something that will make your brand stand out on the smaller screen.

In short, the banners still serve their purpose as a part of your channel strategy, alongside lower funnel techniques such as content marketing, social and so on. For example, if your campaign is about awareness for a new CPG product, don’t try to assess it on click-throughs; use a brand-tracking study to assess recall among exposed and non-exposed audiences, and the favorability that you may now enjoy.

And when you’re trying to get eyeballs onto video content, don’t simply try and get click-throughs to your site to watch it – use formats that embed the video in rich-media formats, particularly on mobile – it can be a great user experience.

So here’s to the next 18 years of online banners. They may never be as engaging as “14 Cats From The 1800s Having A Way Worse Day Than You,” but they might just tick off some of the less glamorous boxes in your marketing plan.

* Editor’s Note: A BuzzFeed spokesperson claims its sponsored content ads receive 10 times the click rate of typical display units. 


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