‘Ads’ are dead. Use advertising instead.


Online ‘ads’, as we’ve known them for the past decade, are dead. The brain of every internet user has been trained to ignore banner ads on websites, and if it hasn’t, web browser adblock technology has ensured the ads are truly hidden. In the future, online publishers will have to look to something different: advertising.


While the two terms might be considered the same linguistically, they are (or will be) very different conceptually. But first, a little history: in the past eight years Google Adsense has made huge steps in lowering the threshold of ad accessibility to website publishers, resulting in Adsense spreading throughout the web like a virus. Just about every website you look at will have Adsense in some form, and if not Adsense they will show ‘ads’ in a similar format. Publishers are primarily paid on a per-click basis, unless traffic is high enough that per-impression payments become significant.

‘Ads’ as we know them today, are to be defined as the primarily Flash-based animated banner, column or square advertisements visible on most websites. Despite the best efforts of Google, these advertisements are generally not targeted particularly well, and are generally bland and uninteresting or irritating and flashy. Consequently, the minds of millions of internet-users everywhere have been subconsciously trained to simply ignore the ads and focus on the content. This has resulted in considerably reduced click rates, and has consequently meant that a number of online publishers have simply given up: the New York Times is now implenting a paywall for users due to this reduction in ad revenue. ‘Ads’ are dead.

What, you ask, is coming to the rescue? Advertising. Boutique advertising firms such as Carbon (used on The Startup Project), Fusion, The Deck, and Yoggrt have made great steps forward in this regard. In today’s world, advertising must be genuinely appealing to readers in order to be successful, meaning that the ads must be targeted with much greater accuracy. Rather than doing this on a page by page basis where a tracker reads the content of each page and consequently chooses ads (as Google does now) a site by site system should be implemented. Many of the boutique advertising firms listed above are doing this very successfully. Carbon uses a system called ‘circles’ where each site in their network is part of a specific ‘circle’ which basically describes the topic of the content on the website. Advertisers then choose whichever ‘circle’ will have readers to whom their specific ad will appeal. This results in a much more successful system for both content-producers, advertisers and readers. Alternatively, using ‘sponsors’ on a week by week basis can also be successful, as it means the advertiser chooses the specific site they would like their ads to appear on, and publishers can ensure the product being advertised will appeal to their readers.

The simple attractiveness and subtlety of advertising also needs a major rethink. It has become obvious that flashy, animated banners no longer appeal to readers and consequently a different approach will have to be found. The advertiser networks mentioned previously approach this almost identically (you can see the result in the sidebar to the right): the ads are static, simple, professionally designed and only 1 advertisement per page is allowed. While this system is an improvement, it certainly isn’t perfect: there is often too little information provided for readers to make the decision whether ‘to click, or not to click’. Just about the only thing advertisers can show is an icon, which isn’t helpful if your product is targeted at a market where icons are insignificant.

Advertising companies need to come up with an alternative solution, and fast. Publishers are rapidly losing confidence in the value of advertising, and even for Google that’s a big risk to be taking.