Some Advice on Ads

Alan Jacobson at Brass Tacks Design has offered some advice to newspaper web sites (and by extension, content web sites) on how to make online ads work.  After listing everyone who hates online ads (the list includes, well, everyone), he offers two main suggestions:

  • “Change the pricing model from CPM to CPC.”
  • “Forget about the user. Focus on the advertiser.”

He believes that to achieve focus on the advertiser a site must:

1) “Make the advertising message the primary visual on each page.”

2) “Limit advertising messages to one per page.”
     2a) Less comprehensive homepages to increase page views
     2b) Stickier sites to increase page views

3) “Serve up ads on a contextually sensitive basis, rather than willy-nilly.”

Jacobson makes some pretty good points here.  I’ve long thought that one ad per page, integrated into the design, would be more effective for both advertiser and reader. The “ad ghetto” that many sites use now results in ineffective ads and readers trained to ignore those sections of the site.  And that includes actual content placed there.  Jacobson’s idea of breaking out of standard ad sizes to create  more emphasis on the ad is good, but runs into trouble when the site is forced to ask advertisers to redesign their ads away from standard IAB sizes. Standards are created for a reason, and it is the very existence of standards that make non-standard ads more effective.

We’d all agree with Contextual ads and increased page views (to help make up for just one ad per page), even if they’re often easier said than done.

Jacobson’s suggestion to move from CPM to CPC pricing is a bit more problematic.  He states that “CPC works for Google. It works for Google’s advertisers. It will work for newspaper Web sites.”  I don’t think that’s an obvious conclusion.  Google adwords get such high click through rates because they appear when a user is actually searching for information or a purchase related to the ad.  Not so on content sites. Yes, a greater emphasis on ads should increase CTRs, but enough? If CPC works for search and it should work for content, does that mean that the only advertising we’ll see online, the soon-to-be dominant medium, is direct response?  That branding ads will die? Just because display ads, as currently designed and implemented have problems, doesn’t mean direct response only is the answer.

I and others have pointed out before that advertisers like CPC ads because they shift complete responsibility for the performance of an ad to the web site.  If an ad doesn’t work because the creative stinks, well, it’s not the advertisers fault, it’s the site that doesn’t work.  Measuring direct response on an ad for a product normally purchased after much research and finding a low CTR? Yup, the site doesn’t work.

I just don’t think the pricing question is as simple as move from CPM to CPC.  There may certainly be a place for CPC ads on content sites, but I’m not sure that place is everywhere.

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