Winning Ad Formats for the New Environment

As Facebook continues to grow its power in the ad world, concerned brands and publishers who don’t want to rely on a single supplier are putting on their thinking caps about what ad formats will work best in the mobile, hyper-connected, information overloaded world we inhabit these days. We were listening to a podcast recently called “The Talk Show,”  in which Apple expert John Gruber, whose Daring Fireball site is supported by minimal ads,  was interviewing Stratechery analyst  Ben Thompson, whose work is supported by subscription. These were  two real experts having a conversation about advertising. The conversation, as you might have guessed, was moderate and intelligent –no freaking out about ad blockers or wild predictions that advertising will go away.

Instead, the discussion was mostly about what works and what doesn’t in online ads, and why. First, the two agreed that what’s really wrong with most online advertising is that it has been too closely derived from newspaper ads without truly being rethought for such a transformative medium as digital has proven to be. Early online publishers, eager to be on the internet but without much insight into the new medium, created space for ads that was much like the space they had created for print. That’s how web sites became so burdened with ads that the content was difficult to read and the pages were slow to load. Two decades later, little has changed, except the CPMs and the ROI.

Facebook finally solved its own problem with in-feed ads, still considered the least offensive, most effective form of online advertising, especially on mobile. But Facebook has a built in advantage; when people are looking at their Facebook feeds they’re not focused on finding information immediately to solve a work or health related problem, or even get an updated  ballgame score. No, they’re largely relaxing, bored, procrastinating, looking for connection, or otherwise receptive to advertising. Many other premium sites do not have the luxury of receiving visitors in a leisurely mode.

The advent of video advertising has made things somewhat better for advertisers who use it correctly. Video ads are sometimes quite effective, but both our experts agreed that 30-second no skippable pre-roll isn’t the answer. They both spoke highly of Geico’s pre roll ads, which are 4-second buys that simply say that by the time you skip this ad it will be over. The ads show, in their very brevity, knowledge about and respect for the customer.

Gruber and Thompson much prefer video in the feed, which we call ” inArticle” and the industry calls “out stream.” And they prefer it not auto run sound. So how does an advertiser know if his message has gotten across if a viewer doesn’t complete the video? How about  taking a cue from Snapchat, whose users often overlay text comments on their video snaps?

In sum, we need to evolve advertising beyond translating print ads into online banners and squares, and begin to understand and create formats that are, to use an often misunderstood word, native to the new media.