Thursday, January 22, 2009

Online Publishing Insider: Mostly Dead

Mostly Dead

"It just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead." Those are the infamous words of wisdom  uttered by Miracle Max (played by Billy Crystal) from the movie "The Princess Bride," after Max finished examining a seemingly lifeless hero named Westley.

Aside from my fascination with classic movies and TV from the '80s, there is a point to this retro flashback. There has been much written about the demise of the display ad. If you look at the numerous columns and blogs written on this subject over the past year you might be inclined to believe that display ads are either dead, mostly dead or at the very least badly broken.

Do a Google search on "Display ads are dead" and you'll find plenty of articles from every major online publication relating to the death of display ads as we know them. Even my fellow Online Publishing Insider columnist, David Koretz, recently wrote a column entitled  "Display Advertising Needs To Die."

However, as Miracle Max points out, if you're mostly dead, you're also slightly alive. While there is no shortage of opinions expressing doom and gloom about the life span of the display ad, there are just as many in the industry that would argue the opposite point of view. Some would even argue that it is not the display ad vehicle that is broken, but rather the methods of targeting and tracking that are in need of an overhaul.

Whether display is mostly dead or not is clearly still up for debate. What isn't up for debate is that the Internet landscape is constantly evolving, and that evolution encompasses the advertising model that sustains it. So, rather than debate the current state of display advertising, why not consider where it is headed? If advertising dollars continue to flow from traditional advertising into the online space, what additional or innovative advertising solutions will our industry have to offer other than paid search, which will continue to be the industry's cornerstone for the foreseeable future?

Does the future lie with some new advertising model? Better ways of targeting and tracking? Let's take a brief look at some of the options that have emerged:

Social Media Ads & Widgets
The popularity and growth going on in the social media space has advertisers, publishers and networks scrambling to figure out ways to leverage and monetize this new form of online networking and collaboration. There are several solutions that incorporate social media technology into display ads, widgets or integrated content solutions from companies like Pluck and Gigya or the "SnaggableAd" from Clearspring and PointRoll. The social media avalanche has even prompted one network, Federated Media Publishing, to abandon its display ad focus to focus on what they refer to as "conversational marketing."

It is too early yet to know if any of the these solutions are the answer, but it is clear that developing a solution for monetizing social media will be critical this year and could be a game-changer both for advertisers and publishers.

Mobile Ads
It seems that every year in recent memory has been predicted to be the "Year of Mobile." 2009 may finally be that year. The iPhone and other touch-screen handheld phones, along with high speed networks, have opened up opportunities for advertising in ways that simply didn't exist a year ago, as people use their mobile phones more and more to consume digital content and information. This could be the year to finally explore the potential of mobile before the gold rush truly arrives and the barrier to entry increases.

In-Game and In-Application Ads
While advertisers and publishers have gone to sometimes excruciating lengths (i.e.,  ESPN's prestitial home page takeover ad ) to monetize every pixel, click, view and digital movement, online activity only represents one segment of time spent on a computer. While in-game advertising has established itself as a viable alternative for advertisers looking for new ways to reach their customers, the development of ad-supported software applications is coming soon. This may open up new recurring revenue streams for software publishers, which is welcome news for companies like Microsoft, but doesn't really benefit Web site publishers looking for better ad solutions.

Alternative Forms of Targeting & Tracking
The methods and metrics that we use to target and track the success of display ads may also be part of the problem. "While display ads are effective tools for brand advertisers, they can also become an important tool in the arsenal of direct response advertisers as well," says Chad Little, CEO of FetchBack. The challenge is to educate advertisers on the importance of tracking the impact of an ad beyond the click. Atlas Engagement Mapping is an example of a solution that can provide a more in-depth view of the true impact of a display ad.

I don't believe that display ads are dead. I certainly don't want them to die, since they are partially responsible for paying my salary (though I'm not affiliated with any of the companies I've mentioned). That being said, I welcome the innovative ideas and fresh perspectives that are needed to help display ads evolve and take advantage of the new technologies and usage trends that continue to shape our online interaction and activity. If the industry doesn't evolve, however, display ads could be on the path to becoming "all dead" -- and not even Miracle Max could breathe life back into it then.


Kory Kredit is vice president of marketing at AdOn Network, a PV Media Group company.

Online Publishing Insider for Thursday, January 22, 2009:

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