AdAge supports rev2oh classified strategy

adage-logo_011Marketers should deploy a combination of search and display ads to drive sales, in the same way that time has shown that trade promotion and TV buys can work together to boost a brand’s presence — and bottom line — according to Hernan Lopez, president of .Fox Networks and COO of Fox International Channels. “It’s still early days when it comes to online advertising, and I’m convinced the opportunities in display are still largely untapped,” Lopez writes in Advertising Age.

Revenuetwopointzero also plans to combine search results and display ads.

Advertising on iPhone

I absolutely love the iPhone apps for nytimes.com, usatoday.com and other major U.S. news outlets. But I don’t see how these great products will pay for journalism because the apps are free and none of these sites seem to display much paid advertising. However, if I missed something, please contact me.

In contrast, free iPhone apps from some overseas newspapers are showing paid ads. Download the apps to see examples from El Universal in Mexico City and El Pais in Madrid.

Unfortunately, both of these solutions have the same fundamental flaw — the banner ads click through to Web pages that aren’t designed for the iPhone’s small screen.

However, The Straits Times in Singapore goes the next step with a click-through to an advertising message that is legible on the iPhone. See below for a news page with banner ad, and the full-page ad you see after you click through.

iphone_01

The Straits Times model is good, but we can make it better.

First, the click-through seems unduly clunky. I think a reveal of the ad onMouseOver (sliding up from the bottom of the screen) would be far more elegant than a click-through.

Second, and more important, the banner ads should be improved in the following ways:

• design
• message/promise/offer
• unique selling proposition
• call to action

I wasn’t compelled to click on any ads I saw. To be effective, these ads should be irresistible. That’s the job to be done.

As designers, we know how to make the most of limited resources — in this case just a handful of pixels at the bottom of an iPhone screen.

Then we should redesign the complete ad that is revealed onMouseOver.

Improving online display advertising

Online ads aren’t working for anyone:

  • Advertisers hate them because they’re ineffective: Click-through rates are less than one percent.
  • Publishers hate them because they aren’t generating enough revenue to make up for the shortfall in print advertising.
  • And most important, users hate them because they’re annoying, distracting and useless.

Clearly, everyone will benefit if these problems are solved. Let’s see how we got here so we can avoid repeating these mistakes.

Mommy, where do leaderboards come from?

Can you remember what the ads looked like on the first newspaper Web sites? I’m sure you can’t, because the first newspaper Web sites had no advertising. Back in the early ’90s, when the first newspapers began posting online, there was a cultural prohibition against advertising on the Internet. Many believed the Internet should be non-commercial.

That notion slipped away by the mid-’90s and newspapers began adding advertising to their pages. But these pages had not been designed with ads in mind, so the ads were shoe-horned onto the pages, first at the bottom, then at the tops and down the sides.

Banners and buttons begat leaderboards and skyscrapers. But these, too, were squeezed onto the tops and edges of Web pages. And that’s why online ads appear in an awkward array of shallow and skinny sizes and shapes.

Multimedia gone wrong

Advertisers are limited by awkward sizes and shapes, so they’ve escalated their war on users with a never-ending series of annoying and intrusive techniques. As is the case in most wars of aggression, it’s the aggressor that loses.

The battle for users’ eyeballs began with animated GIFs. Then advertisers fortified their flintlocks with Flash. These animated ads look great by themselves, but two or more together create a shouting match: “LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME!”

Users responded like Dr. Seuss’s Grinch: “Oh the noise! Noise! Noise! Noise!”

So advertisers served up pop-ups. Web browsers responded with pop-up blockers. Now Web sites offer video and advertisers have responded with pre-roll – this decade’s version of the much-hated pop-up. And don’t forget the interstitials – those ads that get between the user and the page the user wants to see. This latest contrivance is bound to spawn 2009’s hottest Christmas gift: “Tivo for Web,” so users can skip past the interstitials.

The battle for the user’s attention has produced an unintended consequence: Newspaper Web sites have trained users to ignore online ads.

It’s gonna take a lot to undo this damage. We should heed Matt Mansfield’s call to improve the enduser experience of editorial and advertising. Here’s a starting point:

1. Make the advertising message the primary visual on each page and limit each page to a single ad. Adopting this strategy kills two birds with one stone: First, it provides advertisers with the best possible environment for their message. Second, it provides a better experience for the user by eliminating all the noise. But to do so, sites must migrate away from the ineffective IAB standard ad sizes and shapes to create sites that serve up ads like this or this.

But serving up fewer ads per page doesn’t mean serving up fewer ads per visit if sites are redesigned to increase page views. But first we need to change the current paradigm:

2. Create a next-generation homepage. Too many users visit the homepage – then exit – before viewing interior pages because the homepage meets their information needs. And webmasters put too many ads on homepages in hopes of reaching these endusers.

This is a self-defeating strategy that pits advertisers against each other and creates a chaotic environment for endusers.

To increase page views, homepages should be redesigned to be less comprehensive. Homepages should provide a “taste” of a site’s content, rather than a satisfying meal, like this or this.

This strategy will force users to visit interior pages to meet their information needs. These interior pages will provide a more effective environment for advertising, like this or this.

But we need to stop thinking of a Web page as a single page. It’s really more like a magazine spread of two pages. Here’s why:

The first web pages were limited by the size of the prevalent monitors of the day: 800 pixels wide by 600 pixels deep. Today, 1024×768 is the minimum, with most desktop and laptops no smaller than 1152×720. Even my 3-year old Powerbook displays 1680×1050.

But we can’t use that full width for text, because it becomes difficult to read when it is set too wide. Even 500px — half the width of the smallest display — is almost too wide for text.

So a Web browser can really display two pages side-by-side, like a magazine. And like the best magazines, one side can be for editorial and the other side can be for advertising.

new_yorker_01

Consider this spread from The New Yorker, above. Note how the ad is the primary visual element, yet it doesn’t interfere with the reading experience. Now consider this prototype, below, to see the same dynamic at play.

dunn_03

Print ads must be static, but online ads can be dynamic. What if that Thunderbird ad “came to life” onMouseOver, like the photographs in Harry Potter’s newspaper, The Daily Prophet?

Maybe we can draw some inspiration from a newspaper after all, albeit a fictional one.

Optimizing a mobile-optimized video

usatoday_01Here’s a page from USAToday’s mobile-optimzed site, which isn’t as customized as its iPhone app, but does provide a better experience than most newspapers on mobile devices. It uses an innovative tap-to-expand feature to show mobile-optimized video commercials which I haven’t seen elsewhere.

I agree that this is a great way to use technology to monetize online. Good for you, USAToday.com.

Still, there are a half-dozen things interfering with the cool online technology, in my opinion. All of them are easy to improve:

1. I count the phrase “usatoday” three times on this tiny screen. Every pixel on this tiny screen is too precious to waste. We probably can’t change Apple’s UI, but we don’t need that big, thick, blue USAToday bar - I already know what site I’m looking at without being reminded. I’m all for branding — I hear she’s a fine girl —but branding shouldn’t interfere with the end-user experience.

2. I count seven horizontal bands of information, looking like so many spaghetti boxes stacked on top of each other. If we eliminate the USAToday blue bar, that reduces the count by one. If we integrate the posting date with the title in the URL header or put it in the text, that eliminates another.

3. While I love the idea of a mobile-optimized video commercial, I’m not motivated to watch it based on the headline. “The all-new Flex” doesn’t grab me. Why should I care that it’s all new? I’m a Toyota guy, so Ford really needs to sell me. Besides, I learned to drive on my dad’s Ford Country Squire — I called it the White Whale — no wonder I’m a tough sell for Detroit.

4. Why say “Touch to expand” when the word “expand” is probably sufficient? Obviously, the ad won’t expand without some kind of user input. I assume that users of mobile devices are at least that savvy. If we eliminate two words, we have more pixels for a larger image or we can make the remaining words bigger.

5. And speaking of “expand,” this word choice gives me no indication that I can watch a video if I touch the ad. A better word choice might have been “play.”

6. I gotta believe Ford had a sexier image of the Flex than the one in this ad. This ad should have dared me not to touch it, but it doesn’t. Sex sells, but a box on four wheels does nothing for me. I’m not sure whether Ford is trying to reach men or women, but here are options for each, below:

ford_alt_01

7. And finally, the biggest omission is an editorial one - there is no text visible to identify the news photo, which could have been cropped from the bottom to reveal the headline.

If USAToday redesigns this screen and this ad to make both more effective for advertisers, then it might garner even more online revenue to help fund journalism.

A sustainable revenue model

Take a look at the traditional newspaper business model from the outside in:

Consumer engagement is a raw material newspapers collect and bundle for resale to their primary paying customers — advertisers — who nowadays fall into two primary camps:

– Big-box chain retailers, who use newspapers to distribute their glossy, free-standing inserts, and

– Small/medium non-chain retailers and service businesses, who face their own huge disruptions from the big boxes but cannot afford rich, diversified marketing programs.

In the glory days, consumers were willing to subsidize a newspaper’s cost to deliver its convenient bundle of news, information and advertising. This allowed newspapers to set a high price for advertising — too high for many SMBs.

But times have changed. Through consolidation in the retail sector, there are fewer big box stores to advertise. Those that remain can communicate directly with consumers via their feature-rich websites, which makes them less dependent upon local newspapers.

This makes it a time of need, and opportunity, for both newspapers and SMBs.

If newspapers want sustainable local revenue models, they should help SMBs make it through big-box disruption, and this current pseudo-depression, as a local business partner with viable marketing solutions. Print can be part. Web can be part. E-mail can be part. So can mobile, SMS, outdoor, broadcast and cable.

CraigsList and Google Adwords do little for brands, or sales/special offers, or new store locations, or loyalty programs. We all can appreciate how hard it is to succeed with a local storefront or service business nowadays. Newspapers could help these SMBs, and themselves, by offering the media solutions SMBs need.

Build a better CraigsList

The current crisis in newspaper revenue is result of the loss of the classified franchise to national aggregators and CraigsList.

This seems difficult to believe if you think that classifieds are little more than people selling stuff to each other. But the classified franchise is much more than that. It includes automotive, recruitment and real estate (cars, jobs and homes), as well as the more familiar private-party advertising. All together these categories used to provide 25-50 percent of all newspaper revenue. Now much of that money is gone, and what little is left is going away.

Most newspaper execs believe they can’t compete with CraigsList because it’s free. But CraigsList has an even bigger advantage — it’s easier to use than any newspaper’s classified site — as are most of the national aggregators such as cars.com, autotrader.com, realtor.com, monster.com, et. al.

Ironically, CraigsList isn’t particularly well-designed or easy to use. It’s merely easier than the alternatives that newspapers have offered.

And therein lies the opportunity: if newspapers hosted classifieds sites that were both free and easier to use than CraigsList, they could reclaim the classified franchise. Why do newspaper classified sites look like this, when they could look like this?

Check out the classifieds at KSL.com, which owns the classified franchise in its market because it’s easier to use than either Craigslist or the local newspaper.

So yes, we can build a better CraigsList — and keep it free — but we must also incorporate a sustainable revenue model, like this example from a group of weekly newspapers outside Hartford, Connecticut.

Note how classifieds (on the left) are married up with display ads (on the right). Granted, it would be better to see the display ads, rather than requiring a click to see them, but this basic model could work: free classified ads adjacent to paid display ads, as long as both free and paid ads were in the same category.

And we must include a social networking component — that’s the glue that keeps CraigsList together. Even eBay has a way to rate sellers as a means of protecting buyers. So we need a way to make buyers feel safer.

Here’s how to build a better Craigslist:
1. Make it easier to use
2. Make it free for the general public
3. Serve up context-sensitive, paid ads along with free classified ads
4. Provide a forum for feedback on sellers to keep ‘em honest.
5. Aggregate from CraigsList and other sources of classified ads, to create the biggest and best marketplace.