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Search and the Comeback Kid: Part 1

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Everybody loves a comeback story. It's resiliency at its best. And history is full of examples of icons that slowly faded away – or fell from grace with a thud – but later climbed their way back on top. Today Led Zeppelin, Imus, and now even Elizabeth Taylor are trying to make a go of it again. But they're not the only ones in the game. Internet marketing has its own comeback kid.

Any guesses?

Let me give you a few clues. 1.) Personally, I thought it was dead – or that what was left of it was dying a slowwww death. 2.) Some still cringe at the mention of it. 3.) And search played a big role in helping to make it a thing of the past.

The answer? Banner ads.

Why? Let me explain.

Not too long ago, brand marketers considered banners to be a great way to net brand impressions and get in front of their desired audience. In fact, if I think back to the heyday of the dot com boom, I recall several companies that were trying to create awareness for their new brands at any cost, with marketers who were spending money like it was water, with very little regard for returns.

And believe it or not, back in the late '90s and early 2000s, banner advertising was considered an effective marketing channel (which is understandable, considering the only things they had to compare it to were TV, Radio, and Print with their fuzzy metrics). Soon marketers realized that they could start showing direct impact of their advertising dollars using banners. Not long after, direct marketers jumped on board looking for returns.

Banners Decline, Search Ascends

As expected, competition increased and CPM prices went up. At the same time, online users became savvier, and soon grew weary of the banner ads, and their effectiveness diminished. Eventually, it got to the point where it only made sense to use banners primarily as branding initiatives, and any potential acquisitions would merely be an ancillary benefit.

Around the same time, search engine marketing began to gain exposure, especially PPC. Not only could an advertiser track returns, but they could do so at a level that never existed before. Now an advertiser could track which ad, at which time, with what message, in which search engine, resulted in what impact. Just as importantly – if not more so – advertisers now had access to an audience that was actively searching for them. In essence, they went from interruption marketing to permission marketing.

Gradually, as PPC continued to climb in popularity as a highly effective channel, its budget allocation continued to increase. Typically the funds came from other online advertising channels that did not deliver the performance of search. And more often than not, that channel was banner advertising.

More Traffic ... But Lower Quality?

As search became hotter, naturally the search engines looked for even greater opportunity. Clearly, advertisers loved the quality of the audience, but how could the engines generate more inventory? Simple. Partnerships.

Considering that the core competency of a search engine is to ascertain content and its relevancy to a given keyword, all the search engines had to do was provide a financial incentive to publishers, and make it simple for them to join their content network.

Done deal. Inventory grew exponentially. Hence the creation of the content network.

The result? The engines took away the need for an advertiser to identify, negotiate, and buy advertising space everywhere on the Web. After all, an advertiser already trusted the algorithm of an engine and the quality of the audience. Moreover, they liked the fact that there were no commitments, that it provided them with full control, and that there were no obstacles to placing ads anywhere on the web that was relevant.

But ... there was a catch.

The content network didn't offer the same level of quality audience that search did. In fact, the basic premise of search had been violated. The audience captured on the content network was not actively looking for a solution; instead, they were being interrupted by ads. Therefore, the content ads did not have the same quality performance that search did.

As a result, two things needed to happen:

  1. Pricing structure needed to change, which the engines took care of by allowing advertisers to treat content ads independently of search ads.
  2. Advertisers needed a way to make their ads stand out from the content it was surrounded by. Why not get sexy again and show graphics? Hence, the come-back of banner ads.

Banner Ads Return ... With a Search Ad Twist

Advertisers now have a way to incorporate the best of both worlds. They can reach all corners of the Web from a single place and use traditional creative to stand out. Reach and "enticement" is the perfect combination for greater performance.

So ironically, the channel that nearly made banners obsolete is actually helping to bring them back. Not only that, but even traditional banner ad buys on traditional advertising networks is changing. How? Think real-time performance management model. After all, as an advertiser, I don't want to buy six months of inventory. Instead, I want to buy an impression right now because I know it works.

But I also want to turn it off, or change what I'm willing to pay for it in an hour because I know it won't be as lucrative then. The bottom line is that banners are becoming more sophisticated, more real-time, and they will be purchased in much the same way you buy search ads. No wonder they are making a comeback!

But who should manage banner ad buys? Should it be done by search engine marketing firms since now banners are purchased and managed much like PPC? Or, should interactive agencies handle it because it's a "banner" after all, rich in graphical elements? We'll debate that next time...


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