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The 5 superpowers of banner ads we’ve overlooked

Banner ads have gotten a bad rap over the years — and it’s mostly our own fault. For years, digital marketers have focused on click-through rate as the key to success. In the immortal words of the first AT&T banner ad, “Have you ever clicked your mouse right here? You will.” If we’ve learned anything in the last 20 years, you actually won’t. Industry standard click-through rates are less than one half of a percent, so it’s time to move past that metric and focus on what banner ads do well.

Building awareness

I’m not quite sure how digital marketers overlook this key component of banner advertising benefits — maybe because it’s too hard to measure (clicks, after all, can be tracked with an ad server or web analytics). Brand awareness is the foundation of any businesses marketing success. Traditional media is the bastion of brand awareness (after all, a 30 second spot on the Super Bowl cost more than 4 million dollars this year). There have been countless studies over the years that clearly demonstrate the impact banner ads have on brand awareness. In 2010, ComScore and ValueClick released a study that showed higher offline sales lifts from brands that ran online campaigns compared with similar campaigns that ran on TV. ComScore and other studies are great, but not every brand can afford an in-depth study, so here’s another way to demonstrate the impact your display ads have — monitor search traffic to your site. As you might expect, a natural reaction to higher levels of awareness is an increase in site traffic and, more specifically, increases in site traffic coming from branded organic search traffic. Sure, Google is blocking 90 percent of your keyword search data, but you can still see the remaining 10 percent and usually another 10 to 15 percent of your traffic from Yahoo/Bing. So take a look at those data before and during your campaigns — if your ads are placed right, you should be able to see a noticeable shift in the search traffic for your brand and/or product terms.


OK, so assuming we’re in agreement on the awareness side of things, let’s talk about reaching the right people. In the last paragraph, I referenced running ads during the Super Bowl. What a great way to reach a lot of people (more than 110 million viewers last year). But how many brands really need to reach an audience that large? And for those that do, how many are really in their target market? On a smaller scale, take a look at your local television station and one of your favorite prime time programs. Do you really believe that everyone watching that show has an interest or need for your product? You can get pretty granular with TV audiences (particularly with cable), but you still can’t get as specific as you can with online. Online targeting is a lot more like direct marketing than traditional media buying. When buying household mailing lists, you can get incredibly targeted — street address, household income, number of people in the home, etc. The list goes on and on, but the trouble with direct mail is that the cost of delivery is incredibly expensive — it’s not uncommon for direct mail pieces to cost $1 or more (including postage) per household delivery. With display advertising, you can put all those same data overlay and reach your audiences for a few dollars per thousand.


Variety is the spice of life — and the spice of an ad campaign. With this superpower, you can create more ad units, more targeted messaging, and engage your audiences in new ways. Costs to produce a TV spot can be significant, so the idea of running 10 different spots for a new campaign is really not an option. But with dynamic creative technologies, you can literally have thousands of creative executions each aligned to a specific audience interest with a very minimal increase in cost.


While the IAB has gone to great strides to standardize display ads (thank you, by the way), the opportunities in display are virtually unlimited. Sure, when working through programmatic and ad networks, its best to stay with the standards — but direct site discussions can create opportunities that aren’t available. Over the years, while working with partners, we’ve created an array of placements and opportunities that didn’t exist. For one client, I worked with WeatherBug to create unique placements based on pollen counts around the country. With CMP Networks, we created sponsored information sections on their sites, sponsored and supported with client content. One of the great things about digital is that we’re not locked into 30 second spots, column inches, or specific publication deadlines.

Cost efficiency

All of these superpowers come at a cost — but, surprisingly, it’s usually lower than what you get from other forms of media. According to, the average cost per thousand for a 30 second TV spot in 2014 was $24.76. For search campaigns, if you factor cost per thousand, it’s not uncommon to have CPM’s over $50. Of course, both of these media are typically measured in different ways (gross — or targeted — rating points for TV, cost-per-click for search), but from an audience reach and targeting cost, efficiency is clearly a superpower of banners.

Viewability and privacy

Just a quick side note: While I believe that both of these items are important, I also see that our industry takes things to extremes and sometimes blows them out of proportion. Yes, it’s important that ads are viewable — but is an ad in the middle of a magazine any more viewable than something a user needs to scroll the page to see? From a privacy perspective, direct marketing has (and utilizes) way more individual PII (personally identifiable information) than we digital folks have ever had. We need to pay attention to these issues, but keep perspective in mind.

It’s time to move all your media to display

So, display ads are the panacea, and you should move all your dollars to display today, right? Not even close! Media mix is still incredibly important. Much as I’d like to, I can’t impart the emotional impact of a TV ad in display. I can’t place a display ad in front of a prospect actively seeking my product like search ads can. I can’t get the visual impact of a billboard or distribute the depth of information I can with direct mail. But we also need to stop looking at display just from a click-through rate perspective. Brand impact and awareness are important. If no one is aware of your product, you’re not going to get sales. So take advantage of the superpowers of banner ads and build awareness with the right audience in unique ways that inspire them to act.

Originally published in iMediaConnection