Local Web Ads: Can You Spell 'B-O-R-I-N-G'?

By: Steve Outing Some advertising industry pundits suggest that Web banner ads simply don't work. The evidence that this is true is depresssing: The average clickthrough rate is around 1%. According to Market Facts, the number of Web users who "never" look at ad banners is close to 50%.

Not that ad banners as a principal means of Web advertising are likely to go away anytime soon. The estimate for Web banner ad spending this year is $1.4 billion (Internet Advertising Bureau), with projections of $5.1 billion in 2000 (Aberdeen Group).

Alas, when you look at the ads that run on many news Web sites ? especially those of smaller and medium size newspapers ? it's no wonder that ad banners perform dismally. Many of the banner ads for local businesses that I viewed on a recent Web surfing session of news sites were so bland that it's unlikely that even 1% of users would click on them.

Publishers' role

I must confess that I, too, am one of those people who when viewing Web sites tends to ignore the ads. But recently I was viewing a large number of newspaper sites as part of my judging duties for the upcoming EPpy awards (Editor & Publisher's annual competition for best news Web sites), and I began to notice that many of the ads that were on the sites were just plain dull.

I don't blame only the advertisers and their agencies; I also blame the Web site publishers for not educating their advertisers about how to create effective Web ads that will entice online users to check out their wares. Obviously, it's in a news site's best interest to run ads that work, so that advertisers will continue to place online ads and so that the ads are effective in driving new business to the advertiser so that it will be able to spend repeat money on Web ads. Perhaps that's not so obvious to some news site sales people and managers, or their clients aren't listening to their advice.

Consider an ad, spotted on the Daily Oklahoman Web site's sports section. The ad's text reads, "Click here to visit our site. Hibdon Tire Centers." The image alongside the text is of five men in coats and ties, and a woman, presumably the Hibdon staff. Can you spell "B-O-R-I-N-G"? It's not exactly an enticement for a user of that sports page to click on the ad. The ad is so dull, I'd be surprised if it even generated much brand recognition for the advertiser.

Of course, advertisers are responsible for the content of their ads, not publishers. But I'll venture to guess that in the case of Hibdon Tire Centers, its executives don't understand the intracacies of Internet advertising. Most small businesses can't be expected to craft Web ads so good that they generate 10% clickthrough rates. And many small businesses don't work with sophisticated ad agencies which can guide them in the Internet advertising environment. Especially for news sites working with local small businesses, it's up to the site's sales staff to guide the businesses to effective online placements.

The Hibdon ad would have been far more effective if it had offered an enticement for the site user to click. "Buy 3 tires, get 4th free! Click here." Or "Free snow tire mounting! Hibdon Tire Centers." Or even better, the tire shop could offer to sell tires online and allow the customer to set up an appointment to have the tires installed. "Buy snow tires without visiting our showroom! 4th tire free to online shoppers!" (OK, that last suggestion is unrealistic for most small businesses today, but eventually many small retailers will use the Web in this manner.)

Ineffective ads

Yes, there is some effective local advertising on news Web sites, but there are far more ineffective banner ads. Let's take a look at other banners for local businesses that I found on news sites, and I'll suggest how Web site ad sales representatives could have guided the advertisers to create more effective online campaigns.

Here's a typical ad found on many a news Web site. This one I spotted on Jacksonville.com. The text reads, simply, "Duval Honda," with an image of a Honda logo. This ad does little beyond get the dealership's name before Web users. If that's all the advertiser wants, then that's fine; but the advertiser should understand that about half of all visitors to the Web page where this ad resides won't even look at the ad (according to the Market Facts research I cited earlier in this article). Clickthroughs on this ad? If it gets the average of 1%, the advertiser should consider himself lucky. This ad is most likely to perform dismally.

What could Duval Honda do better? One possibility is to have the ad pop up when the page loads as a small separate window, rather than have it be part of the main page. This means that the user is forced to look at the ad, because that window has to be closed before the rest of the page can be viewed. Yes, this is a more intrusive approach; some users will be annoyed by this Web advertising technique. On the other hand, it ensures that every viewer of that Web page will see the ad, and clickthroughs are likely to improve. News Web sites that are having performance problems with their banner ads might consider this more intrusive approach, charging advertisers a premium rate for placements that pop up in separate windows when a user opens a content page on the site.

If Duval Honda was my client, I would try to discourage a straight brand-recognition Web ad such as this. For most retail businesses, it's far more effective to offer an enticement for a consumer to do business with them, or offer some discount. Duval might offer an extra one year of warranty to online customers, or free oil changes for two years. Rather than advertise only its name, Duval might tell Web users to search its inventory online. It could let online customers set up an appointment online and arrange for a salesman to drive a particular model out to their house and take them on a test drive. (Hint: Help your local advertisers get creative about how they employ Internet advertising.)

Here's another example of an ineffective local ad. This one was spotted on the Web site of the Providence Journal (Rhode Island), for Mailboxes, Etc. The animated banner has the name of the business, followed by the text, "7 great RI locations." Again, there's no call to action; the ad gives no reason for a Web user to click it. Similar advice to the Duval Honda ad applies to this ad, also.

A better example

Here's a better approach to local Web advertising. This ad was spotted on the Kansas City Star Web site, for Firestone Tire Centers in the Kansas City area. In flashing red type are the words "Register to Win: FREE Tires and Auto Services." Contests are always a great way to encourage people to visit your site; nothing attracts traffic like the chance to get something of value for free. Which would you be more likely to click on, a banner that offers a chance to win free tires or one that features photos of six tire salesmen?

Do something, quick

As I made my rounds of Web newspaper sites for my EPpy judging duties, I also noted a dearth of local ads at a good many sites; lots of them have considerable unsold inventory. While there are many factors accounting for news sites' inability to sell more Web ads to local businesses, one of them is the poor quality of local businesses' ads that currently run on news sites. Publishers must help local businesses devise more effective Web campaigns; it's critical for Web sites' survival.

Most small local businesses could benefit from online campaigns done right. Unfortunately, they typically don't have ad agencies to guide them, and lack any significant knowledge of how to market themselves effectively on the Web. It's up to news site publishers to show local businesses the way. As I perused numerous news sites recently, I found that too many sites have a lot of work to do in this regard.

A site index worth noting

A while back I wrote a column about the benefits of using an index for your Web site rather than relying on a search feature to let your users find content on your site. Another interesting example of a site index was pointed out to me by Andy Lewis, a software engineer for Quicken.com who created an index applet for that site. To view it, go to the main Quicken.com site and click on "Site Index" in the left navigation bar. The index applet works for most browsers (Netscape Navigator 3.0 and later, and Internet Explorer 3.0 and later).

Get Stop The Presses! by e-mail

If you would like to get e-mail delivery of the Stop The Presses! column, there are two options:

1) Text e-mail. I send out a text e-mail message containing a brief description of the current column, along with a URL link to the actual column on the E&P Web site. To receive these regular reminders, sign up here.

2) HTML e-mail. If you prefer to receive the entire column, you can have it delivered to you as an HTML e-mail message whenever a new column is published. Sign up here.


Got a tip? Let me know about it

If you have a newsworthy item about the online news/interactive news media business, please send me a note.

This column is written by Steve Outing for Editor & Publisher Interactive. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at steve@planetarynews.com


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

Scroll the Latest Job Opportunities From The Media Job Board