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Dear Banner ads, what do you want to do?

December 19, 2010

Recently the conversation on Search Engine, a podcast out of Toronto, has talked about making money on the internet. There’s a great story about an internet comic book that gives away the comic, and sells t-shirts and other swag to pay the bills. The comic book site recently put out a book that soared to the top of Amazon‘s book list .

That’s one business model.

Another discussion was about banner ads. Because an obvious business model is selling ads content sites.

Consider my little blog; People like to share. This site gets readership, but there’s an obvious problem. The problem is display ads aren’t sure what they want people to do?

Banner ads started asking for people to click. In an attempt to “move the goalposts”, banner ads are now looking for impressions. The idea is simple: if more people see your ad for a thing, then when they are ready to buy the thing, the message should trickle up in their brains to buy the thing.

Like a billboard.

The problem is scale. A billboard gets thousands of people to see it a day. This blog gets maybe a hundred. How can a media buy get that kind of number?

The answer is Google and Facebook. They have the scale to pay content producers to display ads.

The problem: no one is really sure what those ads should do, hence the question.

If the goal of the display ad is to get a click, then the ad is trying to do too much. If the goal of the ad is to plant a seed, then maybe the ad isn’t being asked to do enough.

So what should a banner ad try to do? Generate awareness? Be part of the nurturing stream? I’ve seen good examples of the second. I was once looking for a flight to a city on Expedia. I wasn’t logged into Expedia, I was just checking prices to see if driving was even worth it.

A month later, I was surfing a blog when an ad from Expedia popped up with “Hotels in [city]“. That’s right, the same city where I’d looked for a flight.

That’s a nurturing ad. And a wonderful example of delivering something relevant. But it sure isn’t creative. And it won’t win awards.

But then, what does a banner ad want to do?

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