It doesn't take Albert Einstein to realize you'll remember a stranger better if he smacks you in the face with a lemon meringue pie than if he politely holds up his business card while you're shopping at Nordstrom's.
That, in effect, was a dominant finding of three research studies released in New York yesterday analyzing how people are reacting to the bigger, bolder Internet advertising formats. The studies found the larger, more intrusive ad formats were, on average, 40 percent more effective than the "banner ad" -- that slim little rectangle -- that has fallen into disfavor with advertisers.
While the findings might seem obvious, the research by three admittedly self-interested Internet publishing groups is nonetheless important to online media's struggle to survive. Perception can be more important than reality, especially in the image-building ad industry, and the perception that grabbed the Internet by the throat and hasn't let go is that Web ads don't work.
To counter that, an industry trade group called the Interactive Advertising Bureau commissioned a study of the flashy new online formats it rolled out in February. Similar studies were released at the same news conference yesterday by DoubleClick Inc., the Web ad network; and MSN, Microsoft Corp.'s network of Web sites.
The results included a ton of numbers aimed to show that bigger is better. But that wasn't the most interesting news. After all, if the banner ad wasn't effective to start with, will making it 40 percent more effective save the ailing Web publishing industry?
Hardly. That's why the core finding -- and the one Web publishers want advertisers to start believing -- is that even the much-maligned banner ad is having some impact on Web surfers. After surveying people who were shown Web ads, researchers concluded that banner ads have measurable impact on attitudes, even when people don't click on them and get whisked off to an advertiser's site, much as viewers are swayed by TV commercials that entertain but don't suddenly send anyone driving out to Montgomery Mall.
"The most important point here," DoubleClick President Barry Salzman said at the event streamed live over the Internet, "is that every brand measure that traditional marketers care about can be enhanced when a user is exposed to just a single exposure of an online ad unit, regardless of the size of that unit, the specific ad technology that was used, or how the ad was placed on the page."
The banner ad's impact was admittedly slight. Some 57 percent of people who were shown a single Web banner ad were able to recognize the advertiser's name later, versus 55 percent of people who were not shown the ad, according to one study. But the studies also showed the impact grew substantially when people saw the ads multiple times.
How, exactly, did researchers reach their conclusions? For starters, by monitoring hundreds of thousands of Web surfers across dozens of sites from April to June, then randomly surveying them after their exposure to ads of all different types. The goal was to measure how many people recalled each ad, its content and the company sponsoring it, as well as how people's perceptions of advertisers changed after exposure to its message. Researchers compared results from people who were shown each Web ad with those from a control group who were not exposed to it.
Not surprisingly, they found heightened responses to the larger ad formats, which come in various shapes and consume two to 10 times as much space on a Web page as a banner. Ads that flashed, moved or made noise had even greater impact than ones that were simply big -- 71 percent higher, on average, than static ads, according to DoubleClick's research.
And the greatest response of all was triggered by pop-up ads including interstitials, so-called because they insert themselves between you and the Web page you're trying to see. Interstitials had impacts nearly three times higher than those of banner ads, DoubleClick's study found.
Perhaps most interesting were statistics suggesting that Web ads boosted awareness for well-known companies in addition to ones you've never heard of. Researchers found, for example, that exposure to a tall, vertical "skyscraper" ad increased the number of people who said they were familiar with Vaniqa -- the maker of facial cream -- by one-third. Some 22.5 percent of people who were not shown a Vaniqa ad said they had heard of the company, versus 29.7 percent of people who were exposed to a Vaniqa ad.
Now, you wouldn't think Internet ads would do much for an established name such as Coca-Cola, but researchers found Web ads for the soda maker's pop-the-top promotion boosted its favorability rating by 7 percent. The ads further increased the percentage of people saying they intended to buy a Coke product by 13 percent, the survey found.
Those results might surprise Web ad skeptics, but not me. I've believed all along that Internet ads, when done skillfully and with creative flair, can have the kind of emotional impact that will make people more inclined to buy just about anything.
As more free content disappears during the ongoing Internet shakeout, consumers likely will have little choice but to accept the reality that Web ads are going to get even bigger. DoubleClick's president said as much in describing additional research his network recently did. It shows that even with the recent adoption of new formats by Web publishers, editorial content online still consumes more space on the typical Web page than it does in magazines.
So brace yourself for TalkingBillboards.com. Not to mention that lemon meringue pie.
Leslie Walker, The Washington Post. July 19, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.