In last week’s coverage of changes at FM — including the departure of 7 staffers, mostly from the back office team that traffics banner campaigns — some news outlets covered the story as FM pulling back from “display advertising,” and, by implication, pulling back from traditional brand-advertising activities in favor of something else (what we call conversational marketing) which must not be, um, brand advertising.
It got me thinking about the phrase “display advertising,” and how it’s annoyed me that it’s lost so much meaning as it made its way from print to online. (I mis-used it myself in an interview with PaidContent, and didn’t put enough emphasis, apparently, on the subset of graphical ads to which I was referring, the “dumb” ones.)
In print, display advertising generally refers to the full-page ads that run in the main editorial sections of a magazine, as opposed to the smaller, often text-heavy classified ads at the back of the book. Advertisers would pay a premium rate for display ads, but not merely because they could use colors and pictures in the ads. They paid a premium because display ads did more than drive calls to the phone banks; the adjacency to the editorial content and the association with the publication’s brand helped advertisers *create* demand among readers who didn’t yet know they wanted or needed something. If that demand already existed, of course, the reader would have flipped to the back of the book, or picked up the yellow pages, to find a phone number. Some publications — the yellow pages, for example — offered classified advertisers the option to add colors and pictures, but that didn’t turn classified advertising into brand advertising. The yellow pages didn’t convince any of us to buy a new car while the old one still got us to work; those beautiful display ads and TV commercials did.
Online, however, the industry watchers call anything with colors, animation or graphics “display advertising.” The fact is, most online graphical ads are intended to do one thing: Drive clicks to retail opportunities. Contextual targeting engines, like Google’s AdSense algorithm or the technologies developed by various ad networks, are a fabulous evolution — perhaps you could say revolution — of the classified advertising model. Instead of organizing phone numbers and offers alphabetically or by category, the contextual targeting engines take an educated guess about your wants and needs based on the content you’re reading and push the classifieds to you. And that’s a wonderful thing. (Except when these “push classifieds” engines accidentally create embarrassing moments for their clients.)
But online banner ads still have a long way to go before they deliver to brand advertisers a messaging vehicle that’s as *native* to the online medium as display print ads were to the magazines in which they ran.
At FM we’re still very much in the banner-ad business. We just believe most banners aren’t living up to their potential. At the very least, they need to support the publications their customers love, not just rotate through a website’s ad inventory based on a bot’s logic. Ideally the banner ads are an opening to something bigger: A window into a brand’s broader online publishing strategy. Here’s how Dell and JCPenney are using ads to syndicate their content assets. If your customers use social networking platforms to have a conversation, figure out how you can join that conversation, like American Express is doing. If they love to connect with others by way of drawing, like certain BMW customers, let them color in your brand.
Whatever we do, let’s move beyond lame “graphical ads” that won’t create demand, no matter how well we target them.