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On The Flip Side
by Michael Munger

The Future Of Web Advertising & The Mac Web
June 22nd, 2001

Advertising on the Web has been the subject of a lot of talk lately. Internet businesses - mainly publications - would like advertising to generate more revenue, but many visitors find it annoying. Some potential advertisers stay away from it all because they find it less efficient, and some advertisers have pulled out because they thought it did not produce enough tangible results.

The future of Web advertising is under constant questioning and reconsideration. What can the advertiser do to tame it and take full advantage of it? Can Web sites survive solely on Web ad revenue? Can surfers put up with it?

Yes, yes and yes.

Advertising on the Web, as we know it, is dying. For the better, because the "old" model of banners and sidebar squares has reached the end of its potential. Ask site such as Low End Mac (read: Crunch Time at Low End Mac) about the difficulty of making a living from Web ads.

Why? Let us start with banners. They are not visible! They are placed at the outskirts of content, therefore making them superficially important and easy to avoid. Sure, newspapers do the same with their ads, placing them outside the articles, but it is a fact that newspapers can handle such a convenience, especially since the results are not as quantifiable as a banner click. The direct results of print, radio and television advertising are almost impossible to measure. An advertiser knows that half the money he spends on ads is pure waste, but all he can do is try to target his audience and keep finding the best places he can to display his products. As the Web ad's results can be measured in terms of clicks, tolerance toward the effectiveness of an ad remains at a much lower level.

The banner, as an outsider kind of ad, is doomed to fail. It will surely sustain the largest players such as Yahoo!, but for the little guys, the banner is only an inefficient way to generate income. The same applies to the sidebar tile, which is located outside the content, in a place that is easy to avoid and ignore.

The solution?

Since Web publications do not have the same status as their printed counterparts, the best current solution to this very existential question is... intrusion.

As Web advertising is quantifiable by the click, a burden that print does not have to bear, it has to be far more effective. This giant tradeoff is likely to piss off a chunk of the Web's readership, but when dollars and cents are concerned, publications adopt standards that allow them to pay the bills... or they shut down.

Standards? What standards? Here is the first. Adopted by C|Net months ago, this big ad block is the hot new advertising standard on the Web. More and more Web publications have adopted it, including the one that provides me with my day job. It is intrusive and annoying. I should know. As a journalist, I have mixed feelings about giving so much space to an advertiser, and I hate the idea that something is going to intrude in my content.

However, I did imply earlier that this is a bread-and-butter survival issue, which will force threatened Web publications toward adoption or demise. The intrusive ad block is highly visible, it pays much better and it often uses Flash technology for fast-loading multimedia. The latter's space and format animates the ad and allows a new brand of creativity which small banners and sidebar tiles do not offer. If there is one thing in the world of advertising that increases the level of positive response and efficiency, it is creativity!

The second inescapable advertising standard is a long sidebar rectangle. More visible than the tile, and very often animated, it is very efficient. The online version of the New York Times has been using this format for quite a while.

The third, but not the least, is a futurist-looking advertisement, and one that behaves like the commercial preceding a TV show. If you go to a news site and click on a link to read a story, a preliminary page will show up with a very large (sometimes window-wide) ad, sometimes in Flash. After a few seconds, a redirect will send you to the page containing the content you wanted to read in the first place. So, before you read that news article, you will see a sponsor's message. Newsweek has adopted and implemented the format. (The example is what you get when you click on the "News" button from the main page.)

If you read the above carefully, you might make the following observations:

  1. The ads are intrusive, but more lucrative.
  2. They allow creativity, which is another important argument for their efficiency.
  3. The new standards have been adopted by large publications such as C|Net, the New York Times and Newsweek.

What about principles?

Of course, giving such presence and weight to corporate advertisers is against the principles of some people. In fact, it is shameful. As I alleged earlier, however, the above advertising standards are driving more money in for those who adopt them. The fact that significant players such as the New York Times have agreed to implement the formats is a clear signal: publications looking for the essential (survival) state of profitability have to commit or perish.

Such large ads will prove very much to be an annoyance for journalists such as me. They will be a nuisance since they will increase corporate intrusion in the middle of what we publish. On the other hand, failing to adopt the new standards can cause plain failure with a model that made plenty of Web publications go out of business.

Believe me, I wish we could do without it, but the harsh truth of reality is not on the same side as my principles. It boils down to the one element that makes and breaks publications: money. When money is involved, mindsets on rights, entitlement and virtue lose much of their impact.

Web publications that face financial difficulties should think about adopting the advertising standards I described above. Otherwise, we may eventually talk about them in the past tense.

Revenue stream on the Web will most likely force publications to make a tough choice. Sites are going to fall into one of the following categories:

  1. Large sites with modern Web advertising standards.
  2. Small sites that survive with modern advertising standards.
  3. Hobbyist sites.
  4. Subscription sites.

The others will struggle incessantly, close down and wonder what's so wrong with the Internet. There will be exceptions, but I am afraid that the rules are evolving into what I just laid out.

Michael Munger is a French Canadian living in Montreal. He discovered the Mac in 1994 while studying journalism, the profession he loves and practices. He also studied history and communications. In addition to his work at The Mac Observer, he authors the iBasics tutorial column at Low End Mac, and cofounded MacSoldiers in 1998.

You can find more about him at his personal Web site.

You are welcome to send me your comments or you can post them below.

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