Quick Guide to Beating Banner Blindness
Updated: Jan 17
Earlier this week, I started my morning by reading a research-based user experience blog (as all cool people do… right?). Coffee, data, design – for a UX dork like myself, it's a great way to ease into a productive work day.
Or it was, until I stumbled upon one of those eye-tracking heatmap images.
You know the type, right? An augmented-reality screenshot of a web page with certain areas lit up with different colors to indicate where viewers’ eyes went during an eye-tracking experiment:
I’ve seen them before and didn’t think much of them. But on this particular morning, it stopped me in my tracks. After all, we work with advertisers who are setting and meeting big advertising goals in the digital space. Are we delivering effective display ads for them or are the ads being ignored?
So much for that productive morning, I was down a rabbit hole now.
I kept looking and eye-tracking heatmap after heatmap showed that web browsers are practically ninjas when it comes to ad avoidance. They’ve trained their eyes, consciously or not, to look at the primary content on the web page and filter out the rest, including the navigation bar, banners and sidebars.
That ad avoidance is a phenomenon called “banner blindness.” The term was coined in 1998, and advertisers have been working to overcome it ever since.
Banner blindness is a phenomenon in web usability where visitors to a website consciously or unconsciously ignore banner-like information.
Programmatic digital display spending in the United States is on track to exceed $123 billion dollars in 2022 (Statista), but if these eye-trackers are right and next to no one is looking at the ads, are they working? Does “banner blindness” render the multibillion dollar display ad world irrelevant?
After delving deep into that rabbit hole of UX design, cognitive psychology, consumer behavior, and ad tech, I’ve emerged again, and I have an answer:
The display ads that break through “banner blindness” are relevant, attention-grabbing, and well tested.
Relevant ads motivate action
We’ve said it before on this blog (here, here, and here for the record), and we’ll say it again: advertising works when it’s delivered on the right screen, at the right time, with the right message. Relevance is absolutely critical with display advertising. Consider the user experience. A visitor comes to a web page with a specific task in mind, like reading an article or watching a video.
Say, for example, a browser finds a listicle of the best gear ahead of an upcoming backpacking trip. When the page loads, they’re served a dizzying flurry of display ads promoting a designer furniture brand. Sure, the images of velvet couches may be beautiful, but they have nothing to do with the page's content or the user’s goal. Those ads create a disturbance, distract them from their planned task, and can even leave a sour taste in the mouth.
But let’s run that scenario back and change the ad content to something that is relevant to the same user. As they scroll through the list, they mentally take stock of the gear they already have and what they’ll need. In the sidebar is an ad for waterproof hiking boots. And, hey that reminds them that on their last hike, their socks were soaked through by the time they made it to the summit. Hard to appreciate the view with soggy feet. If these boots can really keep their feet dry, well that’s worth clicking on and learning more.
The ad works because it’s aligned with their goals and their behavior. Carefully considered audience targeting tactics can include demographic and behavioral targeting, retargeting, geofencing, and more. With relevant ad messages, brands can cut though the noise and motivate action.
Compelling creative capture attention
There is a big difference between commanding attention and being totally disruptive. A talented jazz singer at open mic night crooning old standards is commanding attention by adding to the ambiance and enhancing the audience experience. If the next performer were to get on stage and shout the bar’s menu into the microphone, that would be disruptive and take away from the experience of being in the bar. Duh.
The same logic applies to your display ads. Are they complimenting their digital environment while delivering a relevant message to your audience? Or are they totally killing the vibe?
The creative of your ad matters. Successful campaigns include ads with compelling copy, eye-catching imagery, and clear calls-to-action (CTAs). Try new incorporating video, alternative formats and placements, and interactive elements. Say for example, you were promoting an event. Instead of a standard “Buy your ticket” button, try incorporating a live countdown to the event to capture attention and build urgency and excitement.
Experimenting with Display Ads
A final note – successful advertisers put their strategy to the test. Between placement, content, timing, targeting and more, there are a lot of pitfalls that can cause a display ad to fail.
Luckily, digital advertising comes with plenty of tools to measure and analyze our efforts. With capabilities like automated A/B testing, UTM codes, and yes, even those dreaded heatmaps from earlier, we can track performance. Systems that capture KPIs allow advertisers to:
Fail fast and sunset underperforming ads
Identify and replicate successful ad tactics
Fine-tune their audience targeting approach to reach the right people
Display ads that are well thought-out and provide the right information can drive valuable web traffic and conversions, and convey key information about products and services.
Banner blindness does not cause of campaigns that flatline; rather it's a symptom of poor user experiences. As it so often does in advertising, successful campaigns hinge on understanding your audience. Delivering content that improves the user experience makes your brand shine, rather than slip into the glossed-over wayside.
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