Karen McGrane

Why Web Ads Suck


I’ve been researching and writing about the advertising business model for a while now, and for one simple reason: I hate online ads. They suck.

And yet, I’ve come around to believing that despite its flaws, advertising is only chance we have of making any real money off the internet. Or, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, advertising is the worst business model for the internet, except for all the others that have been tried.

Brian Morrissey of Adweek asks Are designers to blame for bad Web ads?

There are any number of reasons that web ads are terrible, but most of them sit far upstream from the beleaguered agency art director asked to churn out banner ads each week.

Advertisers Don’t Spend Enough
If you want better online ads, why not pay more for them? When you pay more for something, you often get better quality. CPMs for online ads are between 1/7 and 1/10 of print ads. That means that for every dollar an advertiser like Chanel will pay to get my attention in a magazine, they’ll pay only a dime to show me something online.  Do you expect to get the same quality from your $10 sushi from Whole Foods as you would get if you spent $100 at Nobu? It’s a chicken and egg problem — advertisers want to see better returns before they will spend more — but the advertisers will have to start paying more before quality will improve. Lower CPMs are the main reason that traditional media businesses are floundering; even if publishers devise a somewhat-palatable way for users to pay for content it still won’t make up the difference.

Measurability is a Double-Edged Sword
The saving grace of web ads — measurability — is also their downfall. Publishers tout measurability as a key reason to shift to online media, yet the metrics used to evaluate success are too simplistic. Click-through is a terrible way to measure people’s interest and engagement. People will click more often on things that are annoying, but that doesn’t mean they like the ads. Take the example from those subscription cards in periodicals (“magazine seeds”) which were previously the most intrusive form of advertising known to man, before the invention of Eyeblaster. Subscription marketers know that if you put five cards in a magazine, you’ll get more subscriptions than if you put four cards in — regardless of how much you annoy the people who don’t subscribe. Similarly, the more irritating you make your ad, the more likely it is someone will click on it. If that seems like a flawed way of doing business, don’t blame the designers who are encouraged to make obnoxious ads. Blame the system that focuses on click-through metrics to the exclusion of more meaningful evaluations. (If you still think that measurability is the end-all-be-all of the internet, and you haven’t read Doug Bowman say Goodbye, Google, now would be an opportune time.)

Industry-standard Sizes are Too Constraining
I’ve designed sites for dozens of newspapers, magazines, and blogs, and I can confidently say that having a limited palette of ad sizes (and thus grid structures) to work with really constrains your creativity. The only ad format anyone wants to buy is a 300×250 rectangle. The IAB and other industry organizations put Soviet-style pressure on publishers and advertisers to force them to conform to a single standard. The argument for standard sizes is that it widens adoption, since advertisers are assured of being able to place their banner on as many sites as possible. In practice, it retards growth, because sites are unwilling to branch out to new formats. I’ve been advocating the half-page ad (300×600) for years now, but few sites have re-architected to support it, and so agencies don’t design for it. I asked one client why they didn’t run more of the larger ad size, and he replied “We can’t run it unless 12 of our competitors run it. And they don’t.”

Advertising is About More Than Awareness
Much has been said about how the traditional marketing funnel has been turned sideways and inside-out by the internet. Not enough has been done to educate clients and creative teams about how to change the way they work to engage and persuade people throughout the transaction funnel. Everyone still focuses on banner ads and microsites, which are the equivalent of bus sides and TV commercials. Says Bob Greenberg of R/GA in Art & Commerce: Funnel Clouding (also from Adweek):

I suspect the reason agencies haven’t tackled consideration and preference is because they are far beyond their capabilities rather than simply outside their comfort zone. Real engagement requires entirely new teams of people—like information architects, data analysts and an army of technologists of various stripes. The traditional teams found at agencies simply do not possess the skill sets needed to tackle areas that are deeper inside the funnel, where purchase decisions increasingly take place.

You get flashy, glossy microsites because you’re dealing with an industry of advertisers and publishers that haven’t had a chance to develop and assimilate a new set of values. The digital agencies are schizophrenic, emulating backwards as often as they strive to set new standards. And the cult of measurement ensures that content, tools, and guidance that go beyond mere banner click-through just don’t “count.”

Is it any wonder that online ads suck? Frankly, I think it’s a wonder that agency designers do as well as they do.