Categorized | web marketing

And now . . . adicons!

Tiny little Web ad
That is one tiny ad.
But it gets bigger when you click it.

This has to be some sort of Guinness world record. The New York Times Web edition this morning opened up with the tiniest banner ad I’ve ever seen. Even the Lollipop Guild will probably think this a mighty teensy ad. At around 90 pixels across and barely more than 30 pixels high, the words “banner” and “button” seem perversely grandiose. Even “ad” sounds like a fanciful exaggeration. I’m not sure if this micro-ad format has been named yet, but I nominate the word, “adicon,” as coming close to the mark. Just to appreciate the tininess of this tiny, here’s a little screen capture of the adicon’s placement:

Adicon on The New York Times home page

Desperate for revenue, content producers such as The New York Times and Fox are probably looking for any way to bump up their online ad revenue (hell, desperate doesn’t even begin to describe Fox, who is now suing Google for putting links to their Web pages in Google’s search engine!), but this new micro-ad seems chock-a-block with opportunities for Web publishers, bloggers, advertisers, and (need I say it) small ad and design firms. But these opportunities come at a stiff cost. Succeeding with this new adicon format — whether you’re a publisher or advertiser — is a road fraught with menacing obstacles.

All the standard difficulties of banner ads are hyper-multiplied by this micro-ad or adicon format — getting the user’s attention, long-term branding, and turning a user’s interest into an action. While adicons provide immense opportunities for Web publishers (and bloggers) to increase their advertising inventory and even greater opportunities for advertisers to get ad exposure at a reasonable price, adicons are only for the best of us. Here are my thoughts on the most significant obstacles and considerations:

Micro-ad space is a premium
The great virtue of a micro-ad is that it creates space for additional advertising inventory. It’s also a cheaper ad buy for the advertiser. But The New York Times example, which is a micro-ad done right, shows up its primary limitation. In order for a micro-ad to really work, it has to be isolated and put in prime Web page space. The New York Times, of course, had a little bit of space just east of its search function and south of the masthead. Placing micro-ads in lousy real estate (at the bottom of the page) or, worse, dogpiling them into an adicon heap, would render them invisible and useless.

In other words, adicons are like banner ads. They work only when isolated in the best Web page real estate.

Adicons (or micro-ads) are not click-through ads
These oompa-loompa ads are barely more than a desktop icon, so you have all your work cut out for you just getting people to notice the ad. Persuading your audience to actually click the ad demands too much from the format. I would be flambollocksed if a well-placed adicon, like this example from The New York Times, had 1/3 the click-through rate of the smallest button format.

The most functional use of an adicon, it seems to me, is product and brand awareness in an integrated advertising plan. The adicon here, for instance, is for a Pedro Almodavar movie. While you can click-through the adicon, it instead seems to be primarily supporting a larger print/publicity/Web/TV/theatre campaign. The ad identifies the product and its availability and either serves as a reminder (go see this movie if you are already interested) or an introduction. In other words, this ad is more about increasing awareness than about conversions — if it’s about click-throughs or conversions at all!

We’re back to the old, dinosaur concept of advertising, the one we thought went extinct with all this fancy Web and direct marketing statistics and metrics: building awareness. All the research on Web advertising shows that building awareness is still integral to the process, so why not use a format that is almost totally in the awareness-building business?

The click-through and conversion limitations have consequences, however, for publishers. Adicons, because of their severe limitations, will almost always be serious underperformers when it comes to click-throughs and conversions, so selling adicon space on a pay-per-click or pay-per-sale may be tantamount to giving away the ad space. At the same time, underperformance dictates that any pay-per-impression fees be nominal. What you’re selling an advertiser is a Gargantua number of impressions at a relatively low price.

You could, for instance, simply sell the space by time period rather than by impression — you can sell a micro-space at the top of the page for two weeks to one and only one advertiser, guaranteeing that the ad will become part of the identity of the site and that everyone who visits the site will see the ad repeatedly.

Try designing one of these things
As a designer and advertiser, I’ve only rarely stepped up to the challenge of the micro-design, such as icons, favicons, and mobile Web graphics. To be blunt, the bigger the canvas, the easier it is to design. A big canvas forgives mistakes, misdirections, and downright blunders, but the micro-design needs careful thought and precise execution.

Take the ad here, for example. The image of Penelope Cruz makes her look like some sort of Pulcinella doll. The designer has striven to match the advertising and poster identity of the film advertising. As a result, the typeface (it looks like Didot) is barely readable when taken down small and the word “EMBRACES,” done in orange, fades into the background which is a similar color and tone. Would it have hurt to put “Broken Embraces” in a different typeface, one that resembled the original but was readable at 9 points? If it’s the same typeface, but it’s all uneven and jaggedy, how does that maintain the branding and identity? Would it have compromised the branding to put the word “Embraces” in white type so that it would be immediately readable without having to squint? Isn’t the title itself more important than the colors? Isn’t “Broken Embraces” truer to the identity and advertsing than “Broken #$%#@$*$”?

The designers of this ad, in other words, didn’t have a clue as to how to design for this format. Not. A. Clue. The designer here is thinking “button ad,” but the format is “icon,” which requires the highest level of readability and identifiability. (If you think that’s easy, think again — take another look at the ad and you’ll see that some of the best designers in the business can’t get “icon” right.)

If you’re in the design business, this is an opportunity.
Two weeks ago, I published a little piece on a Japanese design firm that specialized in designing bar codes (at something like $4,000 a pop). Designing icons — and, by extension, adicons — is difficult and requires the highest level of creativity in the business. The problem with the design business (and Web design business) is that everyone does the same thing (usually as badly as everyone else does). A key to succeeding in the business is to find a niche, either an industry or a specialty, and compete to become the go-to-designer in that niche. Mastering the art of adicons may put you on the radar screen of major advertising firms and major companies. But the rules are this: adicons need to be highly readable, highly identifiable, instantly appealing, and memorable. Doing a ten million dollar TV ad is a cakewalk in comparison.

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