Look South

By Dave South

The absolute failure of banner advertising

Banner advertising is a complete failure. It is a paradox of diminishing returns that traps a web publisher into treading water — never making progress and always struggling to stay afloat. What’s worse is how web publishers will flail around with bad idea after bad idea to get ahead. Yet these insane advertisements do more harm than good, cause readers to leave and sink the publisher even more. It’s time to end the madness and recognize that the banner advertising model itself is broken.


Our first and only banner experiment came early in the Italy Neotribune — back when it was no more than a hobby. One day I was brought some pictures from a local business and told that if we made a banner ad for them, we would get $50 a month.

At first it sounded like a good idea. We would put the ad together and get the ball rolling. As time went on, we would charge more per ad and start charging to create the banner ads. That’s how newspaper display advertising works.

But as we discussed the banner advertising process and considered our potential advertisers we began to realize that banner advertising is like quicksand — that first step looks firm but quickly gives way.

Creating an effective banner ad is hard. Much harder than it should be. You have to distill a lot of information down into a bizarrely oblong rectangle — vertical or horizontal.

  1. Create a few draft ideas
  2. Take them to the business owner to review
  3. Create a second draft
  4. Review again
  5. Make a final draft
  6. Review yet again
  7. Finalize the design
  8. Get final approval
  9. Run the ad

Okay. Maybe I’m stretching the point. Maybe the business owner will like the first draft and run with it. Right. That’s hard to say without laughing. There will always be revisions. It takes time. More time than you think it will need.

If it takes ten hours, then our $50 is only $5 an hour. We’d make more money working at McDonald’s.

Why not have the business create their own banner ad?

At that time in Italy, Texas there was only one business with an art director — ours. In my observations it is a rare for a small business to have the in-house talent to create a fair banner ad — let alone an effective one.

Ad blindness

Let’s assume we went through the process and create the ad. It took us only seven hours and the business owner loves it. Great. Publish the ad. Start collecting money.

What should happen next?

Stories on the Italy Neotribune are looked at most the first day, a lot less the second, and receive few clicks on the third. After a week it takes an exceptional story to keep generating page views. It is far worse for advertisements.

Ideally the ad would be updated with a new offer. Something different every week. Maybe something new every day.

For our example, lets say it took seven hours to make the first ad. What if we just make a small change and it only takes two hours. And we only make changes once a week. That would be 11 hours the first month and 8 hours every month afterwards.

Wait a minute! We’d be “making” less than minimum wage to do this. In reality, the cost to create the ad would exceed the income from it.

So what really happens?

Instead of regular changes, the ad will be left to rot. It’s the only way to make back even some of the real cost of creating the ad in the first place. As long as the business doesn’t complain, why should we change it?

Six months go by and the ad sits there. Maybe a year passes. I’ve seen some websites with the same banner ad going on three years.

Sure, we’d get $50 a month without any further effort. We would also get ad blindness. Readers will quickly note that the ads never change so they just stop looking at them.

Beginning of the problem

The difficulties of banner creation and avoiding ad blindness are only the beginning of the problem. Already we can see that either the businesses must spend a lot more money or we need a better system to reduce the cost of creating the ads.