It feels as though banner ads have been around forever, but it turns out the first banners appeared just a year before I first used the web, in 1994, on HotWired, one of the first commercial web magazines.
Ad exec Frank D’Angelo was there when it happened:
Our challenge seemed simple: develop something called a “graphical ad unit” for HotWired. This initial assignment was under the guise of “let’s explore this new medium and see what happens”…
We were given the ad specs by HotWired and it was only then that we realized banners ads were clicked on and could drive consumers to a client designation on the web. Oops! This accidental lesson sparked us to develop websites for these initial ad banner placements. Some of our clients weren’t too sure they even wanted to “interact” with this new online population. Can you imagine?!
Its launch in 1994 was not without debate internally as to whether the ad units offered to the advertiser community should be simple text links or graphical ad banner units. Graphical ad display banners won out and the rest is history.
Since that historic decision banners have been the ad unit most closely associated with online advertising (with the possible exception of the hated pop-up, which is blocked more often than it pops these days, for which we can all be grateful).
Banners have appeared on billions of pages over the past 17 years and advertised every possible product and service.
They’ve evolved in that time, from the first simple static images and rudimentary GIF animations, to Java and Flash based multimedia spectacles that announce their presence with video and sound, that float or expand when you go near them, and that target you based on your prior browsing history.
Banner ads fuelled the first web boom in the late nineties, as impressions were converted into cash on an epic scale by the first generation of internet barons.
Banners are still everywhere, and yet most us don’t notice them. Eye tracking studies show people very rarely so much as glance at graphical ads at the top of the page or in the margins.
Frank D’Angelo says one of the first banner ads had a click-through rate of 78%! These days the average is well under 1%, and it’s falling year on year.
It’s not just that people don’t notice banners. Sometimes the banners aren’t there at all thanks to the huge popularity of ad blockers like Adblock Plus for Firefox (which has been download 118 million times) and Adbolock for Chrome (which has 2.8 million users).
It seems that efforts to make banner ads more noticeable (perhaps the right word is ‘annoying’) have in fact made them less effective.
It’s clear that the banner ad had a good run. For almost two decades it ran the show. But’s equally clear that the glory days are firmly in the past, and it’s now time to pack up the pixels and go to the great digital retirement home in the sky (I hear the pop-up ad has kept the seat warm).
We’re calling time on the banner ad. It’s time for something different.