Wake up marketers, digital display is dying…

One of the worst things you can do as a digital marketer is close your mind to something. Over zealousy about a certain channel or method is limiting.

It showcases a lack of imagination, and can be detrimental to the brand you’re working with.

In an era when the previously well defined lines within the industry are blurring, nothing can be ruled in or out. The strategies you use for one brand should be completely different to others.

Given the speed of internet culture, change is the only guarantee.


I’m a big proponent of non siloed thinking. And yet, one of the channels that I’ve always struggled with has been digital display. It’s often the default option for brands looking to raise awareness online, but its role is often very loosely defined.

It’s also expensive and, despite the innate measurability of digital marketing, in most cases the only thing that’s measured is clicks or ‘impressions’ (we’ll come to this misnomer later).

For me, display advertising online is a broken model, puffed up and supported by brands, agencies and marketers who don’t want to take risks, don’t want to delve deeper into the value it actually provides for a brand, or worse, don’t actually understand the problems with digital display.

To be very clear, I’m not saying it’s a useless tool. In fact the opposite. If it’s executed correctly and targeted effectively, a good display campaign can be tremendous for awareness.

But let’s debunk a few myths about what display can and can’t do for a brand. To be clear, I’m talking only about traditional digital display, not any of the newer, more targeted formats which I reference below like social, video or programatic.


At the outset of the web, banner adverts were designed to interrupt people, like T.V. and radio adverts. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, and of course, the newness of the medium drove interest and clicks.

But in the intervening 15-20 years, we’ve seen the CTR on display fall consistently, to a 121854
point where a 1% click rate is seen as a success. The simple fact seems to be, people don’t want to click on a display advert, and if you do get a click, it’s either by mistake, or fake – click fraud is becoming a bigger issue, whether human or bot driven

There seems to be some ‘head in the sand’ behaviour from marketers around this topic. But understanding it, and focusing on awareness driving rather than click driving should improve display creative and thus our ROI.


One of the most feared terms for any media agency person is ‘ad-blocking’, and it’s a behaviour that’s more widespread than many seem to think. Irish company PageFair are a thought leader within this space, and have devised research in the last few months supporting this.

It seems there are about 144 million active adblock users around the world, with growth in the space of nearly 70% between June 2013 – June 2014. For any marketer, that should be stark and staggering. But it gets worse. The momentum is being created by younger web users, who are becoming more difficult to reach anyway, given their cynicism and unwillingness to be interrupted by brands. 41% of 18-29 year olds polled said they use adblock, with Google Chrome the key vehicle for the behaviour.


If people don’t  click on digital display, then surely they see it? Right?

Well there’s a question mark around this too.

Banner blindness is now normal to all web users. We’ve changed the way we read content online, favouring the left hand side of the page and blocking out any MPU content on the right. That’s part of the reason why ‘native’ advertising has taken off.

According to recent Google studies, more than half (56.1 per cent) of online display ad impressions are not seen by consumers. So if you’re an advertiser paying for display on a CPM (impression) basis, it’s not even guaranteed that someone has seen, or even had the opportunity to see your advert. Ads above the fold had an average 68 per cent viewability rating, while below-the-fold was at 40 per cent.

Viewability varies across different site content types.

The main issue here is easily fixable, but relies upon a deep change in the way digital display is measured. Currently, brands are charged based upon ads ‘served’, rather than as ‘viewed’. Many within the digital ad space have also advocated a move towards ‘attention’ metrics. Chartbeat has been working with several publishers, including The Financial Times, the Economist and Upworthy on new ways to measure consumer activity on their sites, tracking mouse moment and keyboard activity to determine how closely a reader is paying attention to a page.

The real value of display?

There are obviously real issues with digital display, and marketers need to change how they think about the medium. But what is the real value offering with online ads?

Curiously, we need to start thinking about online ads are like large format outdoor ads.

  • They’re often seen as wallpaper.
  • They need to be creative enough to knock people dead in their tracks.
  • They suffer from poor placement and need to be surrounded by high value.
  • The message needs to be delivered succintly and quickly.
  • They’re only really applicable to people in the market for that specific product/service, so proper targeting/placement is utterly essential. 

Understanding these traits, creating a very specific role for display and being creative in format choice and visuals should have a positive impact. The laziness of current thought processes and restrictions needs to be overcome. In a wider sense, there’s both a need to improve how we do things and change how we view traditional digital display.

Still, for a market that’s worth multiple billions, it’s surprising that brands haven’t cracked this yet.

With the growth of options like mobile, re-targeting, programatic, sponsored content, video and socical, we’ve never had more options to get our brand out there.Time will tell whether display maintains its position as part of these tools. To do so, it must pivot enough to continue adding value for the trio of brands, publishers and consumers.

The difficulty is you’re basically turning the Titanic around.

But the alternative is that digital display hits the iceberg.