With click rates on online ad banners ranging between o.5% and 2% it is not difficult to understand why many in the marketing, advertising and media professions often question the efficacy of click-based models of advertising on the Internet. It is a problem for both advertisers of products and services and the website owners that publish ad banners on their pages.
For advertisers, exposure of consumers to their ads is not a sufficient or satisfying criterion but immediate action in response to the ad banner is very difficult to elicit; perhaps clicking-through should not be expected just because these objects are “clickable links”. Should the effectiveness of ad banners be doubted because of low traffic it may generate, or is it that the criteria used are inappropriate?
For the owners of websites used as vehicles for advertising (e.g., newsmedia, portals, social media), it is a question of effectiveness in generating satisfactory revenue from those ads, conditioned on mouse clicks. When webpages receive high volumes of visits, even very low click rates may be sufficient to collect a handsome sum of money, but this cannot be generalised to most websites and pages. On the other hand, if a website is loaded with ads across the pages to generate more revenue, it may end up cluttering its own content and chasing away visitors.
Internet users who browse websites in search for information on a particular subject (e.g., photography, nature), and read or watch related content on webpages, are very likely to see ad banners as no more than a distraction from their main task. Clicking on a banner that sends the users to another page means an interruption of the kind many would not welcome. There are exceptions, of course, when for example the ads are for products (e.g., cameras, hiking gear) related to the main topic of the website and thus provide access to additional information that can be of interest on relevant options (i.e., context in which ads appear matters). Ads may be perceived less disturbing to surfers who are engaged in exploration with no planned goal but for fun and entertainment; checking on advertised companies and products may be accepted as part of the exploration, although maybe not in every condition (e.g., when users are wary of non-trusted solicitations, busy interacting with friends in social networks, engaged in watching music videos and so on).
However, viewing an ad banner for a brand can leave an impression, and a trace in memory, in consumers’ minds that will have its effect at a later time, especially if a choice situation in the same product domain is looming soon after. Consumers may register in memory the exposure episode, with the brand name and additional information contained in the ad, for checking-up later without being required to click-through at the same moment. Importantly, this “registration” does not have to occur consciously to make an impact.
If a consumer-surfer is interested, he or she may attempt intentionally to remember the ad and look-up for the brand’s website when the time becomes available and convenient. When working on a computer or a mobile device, one can easily type a note or set-up a reminder, especially if the website address also appears on the banner. But an ad banner can operate without waiting for a voluntary response or overt reaction from the consumer. It depends to a large extent on the kind of impression made by the visual image of the ad banner on the consumer-surfer at an initial or quick glance. An image that is easier for the eye and mind to process, that feels pleasant to look at, its informational content will become more readily acceptable and persuasive. Visual processing fluency (1) at the perceptual level suggests that principal elements of the image can be identified with little effort and great accuracy — for instance, in a banner’s image, that may include the brand/company name, logo icon, and picture of a product. Visual fluency can be facilitated by the use of colours and recognizable shapes that are pleasing to watch, symmetry, clear contrast between figure and ground, etc. Its persuasive effect may not be strong enough to trigger a mouse-click yet increased fluency can make the ad’s content better remembered as well as better liked by the viewer for a longer time after exposure.
An ad banner can influence consumer attitude and response also through a process of priming. This type of effect in the particular domain of ad banners on the Internet has been studied by Mitchel and Valenzuela (2). The consumer is initially introduced to the ad in a seemingly casual and incidental way. However, information in the ad stimulus, “planted” as a trace in the consumer’s memory, would prime her or him, unconsciously, to use it during a future task, for example when recalling brands or choosing between alternative brands. Such exposure could work simply by evoking a positive attitude towards the brand in the priming ad. In another procedure, a joint presentation of a brand with a product attribute in the ad banner would prime the consumer to look for and give priority to that same combination when it appears in the information provided on a set of product alternatives to choose from.
according to this research, priming by an ad banner can affect the consideration of brands for purchase (tested with airlines) in three significant ways. First, a brand whose ad had been shown earlier was more likely to be considered for purchase (of air-tickets) than if an ad for another brand had been shown or no ad at all (control). Second, this effect is stronger for a lower quality brand than for a higher quality brand, that is, a stronger brand has less to gain from priming through its ad banner. Third, when consideration is based on recall from memory, priming has a stronger effect in leveraging the likelihood of consideration of a primed brand than if the brands have to be selected from a constrained list — this may be explained by the added impact of priming through prior exposure on memory (note: this difference is valid only for the lower-quality brand!). Advantages of priming are established also when making the final choice of a single brand to purchase from (subject again to the second and third qualifications above).
Mitchel and Valenzuela further reveal in their research an interesting effect of priming of established brands on a “new” unfamiliar brand (i.e., a fictional airliner). All participants were exposed to an ad banner for the unfamiliar brand before given any tasks and therefore the relevant priming effects arise from the lower-quality and higher-quality brands. It is shown that results for the unfamiliar brand were more favourable if at the beginning of the research the higher-quality brand had been primed rather than if the lower-quality brand or neither of them had been primed. The more positive image of a higher-quality brand seems to spill over to the unfamiliar brand by lifting the brand’s evaluation higher and increasing its likelihood of consideration and being finally chosen — an advantage that earlier priming of a familiar but lower-quality brand cannot provide to the unfamiliar brand.
We may learn from this research that ad banners can be utilised to create an advantage for a brand during consumers’ decision processes without their full awareness of it but it will not help any brand — it is more suitable for brands that are currently weaker — and not in every situation. The placement of the ad banner for this purpose has to be planned wisely, preferably in websites, and on particular webpages, where consumers are engaged in learning about a product domain or making the first steps of searching and screening products. Designing an ad banner that is clear, concise and pleasant to watch can only help to maximise impact.
Measuring the effectiveness of ad banners is undoubtedly faced with difficulties and barriers. There is greater tendency to refer to statistics of page views to assess also potential exposure to ads placed on a page (“impressions”). However, overall “page impressions” are not detailed enough as they refer to the whole webpage; they cannot tell us to which sections or objects, particularly ad banners, a consumer-surfer attends, nor at what level information is processed. Capturing fixations on particular objects by Internet users requires an application of the methodology of eye-tracking. Latency of eye fixations can already provide an indirect indicator of the extent of processing information. However, that methodology cannot be practically and economically applied on a large-scale nor can it be applied on a regular basis.
A third-way approach that is based on tracking mouse movements over a webpage, and is able to detect objects on which a mouse hovers even without clicking on them, provides a sort of middle-ground solution. It is not as complete and accurate as eye-tracking but it can provide a substantive even if partial information on objects to which a consumer-surfer attends; it is based on the premise that our hand often follows our eyes (i.e., visuo-motor correlation) and we tend to point the mouse on a place or item we concentrate at a given moment. And, not least, it is a more feasible solution, technically and economically, to operate on a large data scale. At this time, it seems as a viable platform for developing extensions and improved measures of consumer attention, browsing behaviour, and response to stimuli.
The Internet company ClickTale, for example, offers a range of methods for analysis and visualisation of users’ behaviour with a mouse (e.g., “heat maps” based on frequency of mouse “landings” in different locations over a webpage and tracking the movements of a mouse on a webpage).
There are remaining limitations to behavioural data that do not allow us to assess more fully the extent to which ad banners are processed and how it may affect our attitudes, thoughts and feelings. Difficulties can be foreseen for example in measuring the implicit effects of visual fluency or priming on consumers in a “live” environment in real-time. The way to test and measure these effects is by conducting experiments while combining cognitive, attitudinal and behavioural data. The new age of touch screens presents yet a new set of challenges in measuring covert and overt responses.
To conclude, here are a few points that may be worth considering:
- The relatively small area of a standard ad banner can make it challenging to construct and design effective ads. First, it is recommended to graphically design an image that is visually fluent for the consumers-surfers, as much as it is in control of the designer — the rest is in the eye and mind of the viewer. Second, include sufficient information in the banner, like a key claim or description of strengths, that the consumer can relate to and keep in mind, consciously or unconsciously, without having to click-through anywhere else. Third, include a web address the consumer can save and use anytime later.
- Think a few steps ahead, what consumers-viewers may do next, that is, how consumers may be influenced by the information and utilise it in a subsequent activity (e.g., shopping online). Thereby, plan the content, placement and timing of the ad banner with respect to events or types of behaviour it intends to affect.
- Animated ad banners quickly capture the attention of viewers by their motion. However, such ad banners that appear especially on sidebars attract attention involuntarily at the periphery of the visual field, that is, even if the reader tries to avoid it. Limit the period of time the animation works or let the user stop it lest she is likely to abandon the page altogether.
- Beyond the advantages of motion and sound of ad video clips, they can be activated on-site and viewed without requiring the consumer-surfer to leave anywhere else, an important benefit of time-saving and convenience. They should display a visually appealing opening screen and be kept at time-lengths of 30 seconds to two minutes to attract and engage viewers for a reasonable period of suspension from other tasks on the website.
1. Cognitive and Affective Consequences of Visual Fluency: When Seeing Is Easy on the Mind; Piotr Winkielman, Norbert Schwarz, Rolf Reber, & Tedra Fazendeiro, 2003; in Persuasive Imagery: A Consumer Response Perspective, L. M. Scott and R. Batra (eds.)(pp. 75-91), Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
2. How Banner Ads Affect Brand-Choice Without Click-Through; Andrew Mitchel and Ana Valenzuela, 2005; in Online Consumer Psychology: Understanding and Influencing Consumer Behavior in the Virtual World, C. P. Haugtvedt, K. A. Machleit, & R. F. Yalch (eds.)(pp. 125-142), Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.