Another nice episode of “Future Tense” this morning, following up on this obsessing issue of online advertising. A study just out from Nielsen Norman has found that online advertising “works” about 0.01 percent of the time–in other words, hardly ever. What did the study consider “working”? Apparently, they found a way to measure the amount of attention a browser would spend looking at online ads, and they defined success as “fixating,” i.e. more or less having the eyeballs captured. At least that’s what I gathered from the brief report. Obviously, you’d want to take a close look at the methodology here, and consider the opaque link between “fixation” and cognition, but I’m hardly the person to lightly toss around a faux scientific lexicon. (I leave that up to the advertising community.) Aside from that huge caveat, which could impeach the whole argument, this raises more questions than it answers.
First, how would this compare to print? This is a crucial question in the larger conundrum of convincing advertisers to migrate from print onto the web, which everyone agrees would be a good idea–other than most ad buyers today, of course. Are disply ads in print qualitatively different than
display ads online? I suppose its possible–we certainly believe that reading on paper is a nicer experience than reading on screen. But the experience depends on what, exactly, you’re reading. The news, the lottery numbers, anal sex jokes at Wonkette–these all work fine onscreen. But a novel? A short story? A long piece of investigative journalism? Definitely prefer paper to pixels. Perhaps the same is true of advertising. Maybe paper just has tactile advantages that will never be displaced by computer screens.
Then again, we are still stuck in the stone age of online journalism (chicken an egg problem–if we had more online ads, we’d invest more in, say, wiki-style vlogging as a form of journalism) where the model is still print. Print works better on paper. Video and audio don’t. But right now, we’re merely shoveling the print product–narrative journalism–onto the web, along with advertising that is also built in a print paradigm, though, of course, using moving pictures and sound more and more–usually to startling and annoying effect, given the otherwise implaccable silence of most people’s online experience.
Given all of that, I think there are some really obvious ways around this “fixation” issue. First, there have been interstitial and interupting ads for many years now–think of Salon’s daily pass approach that allows you to read premium content only after a mandatory viewing of a full page ad. That’s what I’d call forcible fixation, and I think it works. Also, less obtrusively, you’ll see more and more text-oriented sites interrupt their body copy with ads–like on this particular page. That forces the issue a little bit too. Basically, the takeaway here is that readers have undoubtedly gotten used to the standard templates of adspace and editspace on webpages. You have your postage stamp ads to the right, your banner ads across top and bottom, and everywhere else is editorial copy. This makes it very easy indeed to ignore adspace entirely.
Finally, a great truism of all advertising–in fact all editorial, too–is that good ones work, bad ones don’t. It is very difficult to draw generic conclusions across a spectrum of content that ranges from the painfully banal to the glriously quirky. Now, you could argue that 0.01 percent is proof beyond doubt that all online adverising fails. But you might just as easily conclude that 99.99 percent of it sucks, or is merely repurposed from a better medium–paper.