One hint that conventional Web-site banner ads haven't fared well is that companies are making software to block them out - the computer equivalent of a mute button.
But as advertisers and ad agencies become more comfortable online, they are looking for better ways to reach Web users,even with banner ads. They are also sending e-mails (invited ones, not spam), sponsoring Web sites, and developing campaigns spread across several media.
"We're beginning to see a lot of very, very interesting changes," says James Nail, an analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.
In the last few years, the percent of viewers of banner ads who actually click on them has dropped from 2 or 3 percent to 1/2 percent, says Mr. Nail.
But banner ads are evolving. Slowly they are becoming more interactive (allowing people to use a subscription form right in the ad, for example), and ad-agencies are starting to flex more creative muscle to make them inventive. Audio and video elements, though not common, are also being explored.
Simultaneously, marketers are developing less-ignorable ways to reach consumers, ones that don't violate privacy, but do offer access to the lucrative online market.
One fast-growing "direct marketing" option is non-spam e-mail, which has taken off in the last year. Permission marketing is the first Internet-specific way of marketing, an approach that could soon be a part of Web ads as well.
YesMail, based in Chicago, is one of a dozen companies helping marketers acquire and retain customers. The company's approach is to partner with Web sites to generate lists of consumers -and their interests - whom marketers can then e-mail through YesMail. The key is that consumers are asked if they are willing to be e-mailed. Once they give their permission, they have "opted in."
"We find that it is most beneficial to build a one-to-one relationship rather than using a strait banner ad, which is more hit or miss," says Cindy Herman, spokeswoman for children's clothingmaker OshKosh B'Gosh in Oshkosh, Wis., which used YesMail to introduce its Web site last fall.
YesMail is signing consumers up at the rate of 1 million a month, says spokesman Jim Carini. On average, people get four to five e-mails per month, he says, and unlike banners, the response rate averages between 5 and 15 percent.
"It's an extremely cost-effective means of reaching Internet-savvy individuals," says Ryan Minor, a direct-marketing strategist at Allaire, a software company in Cambridge. He says $1 spent on e-mail equals $20 spent on banner ads.
At YesMail, they don't see e-mail replacing banner ads. "We advocate integrated marketing," says Tony Priore, vice president of marketing. "There is no silver bullet."
One example of an integrated approach is Yahoo!'s Fusion Marketing. Companies like Ford and Procter & Gamble are asked what specific needs they have and Yahoo! develops a plan using a mix of ad approaches.
Nail says that the key is to stop thinking of the Internet as a TV screen and to start "developing a more-sophisticated understanding of the capabilities of the Web."
In the meantime, for those who are tempted by the banner-blocking software, he offers this advice: "People already have the most effective banner block in the world - their brain."
Kim Campbell, The Christian Science Publishing Society
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