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This year is the 20th anniversary of the banner ad. In 1994, HotWired magazine invented the unit as a short-term solution for tiny cathode-ray tube monitors and the incredibly minimal websites of the era.
Two decades later, we still use banner ads.
Those of us in the ad industry ought to be ashamed of ourselves.
The banner has been dead as an effective advertising unit for at least a decade. Other than the ads on this page, can you remember a single banner you saw today? While it is easy to recall TV commercials from decades ago, banners are fully ignored and never remembered.
“Hey, did you see that awesome banner ad yesterday?” said no one, ever.
As a longtime member of the online advertising industry, I am embarrassed at our collective failure to innovate. The ad industry helps fund the free and awesome Internet we all enjoy, and by not improving on worthless ad units, we are stiffing funding for even more awesomeness in the future. Our failure hurts all of us.
Thankfully, some haven’t been silently accepting the tyranny of tiny little boxes, and they have been innovating with new ideas under the label of “native advertising.” Native is not a “thing” to be defined, but rather it is a movement of publishers, advertisers and technology companies independently innovating to discover ad units that actually work.
Native is producing content as ads, Facebook putting ads into the News Feed, Google search ads (the greatest ad innovation of our lifetime), Twitter sponsoring tweets, and publishers saying, “Screw the little box, and lets make something that actually works.” Native is about experimentation, crazy ideas, failure, unscalable awesomeness and unadulterated creativity. Native is what should have happened 20 years ago.
The critics will tell you that native can’t scale. As usual, they are wrong. Google text ads scaled. Facebook News Feed ads are scaling. Promoted Tweets are scaling. When done correctly, native scales just fine. The great thing about computers is that we can build them to do just about anything, and scaling a few ads is really not one of life’s hard problems.
If we are going to fund and build the Internet of the future we all dream of, we are going to need to build a new model of advertising that actually works and that users don’t hate. So, rather than hide behind the lame excuses, the made-up lift studies, the same old bullshit hand-waving and the general complaining, let’s all agree that the time has come to think outside the little box.
All of us, whether we help build the Internet or just use it, have an obligation to make the Internet a better place, and by killing the banner ad, we will go a long way toward that goal.