INTERNAUT

A few words from the sponsor: Banner ads pack less punch

Shawn P. McCarthy

Government Web sites are taking a cue from commercial sites and using banner or showcase ads to tout themselves, their services and their work products.

It is not really creeping commercialism in the manner of, say, public television. Some federal Web managers don't even use the word ad. They say they're simply highlighting what's available. But they obviously have been picking up visual ideas, splashy graphics and quick links from commercial sites.

Ads can be a great way to tout new government sites, online reports, or details of new programs and collaborations. They are especially useful for marketing items such as books or reports. If an agency already charges for such publications, advertising to boost sales is a logical progression.

To see a good example of how one agency does this, visit the Commerce Department's National Technical Information Service, at www.ntis.gov. Look at how many products are highlighted at the left of the page.

Government sites that want to push products via Web ads should study the lessons that commercial sites have learned. The fact is, banner and showcase ads'the small ones that load at the left or right'are losing their effectiveness.''

The model of banner advertising is to distract users while they're trying to do something else. Maybe visitors come to your site looking for statistics about left-handed pine-cone pickers in Southern states. They get nothing from a front-page ad on your new report about home freezer distribution in Alaska.

Passing through

Is it a good idea to force-feed an icon to everyone and hope that those who look for a particular item will notice and click? Most Web surfers have gotten very good at focusing on their targets. The click-through rate for banner ads reportedly hovers around 0.5 percent, and some of the clicks are mistakes.

An art director for one Internet commerce site recently told me that surveys, and his own experience, indicate people have grown weary of wasting their time online. They scan quickly for specific information, ignoring areas of each page that they deem unproductive.

Obvious ads are often thought to be unproductive, whereas embedded text information about sponsorship and links is considered acceptable and is more effective for guiding users to a specific product.

As people focus closely on their targets, your agency can be more effective by designing ad links that mesh with the targets. Ask yourself what visitors want from your site. Spend the time to break out ads into a series of banners, boxes and links spread over strategic areas of the site. It's more work and maintenance, but the effort will pay off.''

The Web is the first paradigm in which the searcher's transaction occurs within the medium itself. Previously when people heard of something via newspapers or television, they had to travel, write or call to obtain it. Now they can make a purchase or download the data as soon as they find what they seek.

Even when visitors to your site aren't purchasing anything, the same rules apply. If you've done any user testing on your site, you begin to see how people commonly execute certain tasks. If you haven't done any user testing yet, do it. As an insider, you're too close to the design to know whether it works as you thought.

Once you learn how visitors navigate, channel them as fast as possible to the things they're looking for. Links that look like ads may still be the best way, but you might end up shuttling visitors to wrong areas or losing them altogether to other links.

The marketing concept of brand mentoring means that both you and your visitors are aware of a certain esthetic about a product and how people relate to it. Brand mentoring works for Coca-Cola, Barbie or the Apple iMac, but it can be tough to apply to agency products such as statistical databases or trade reports.

But keep the concept in the back of your mind as you work on site design. The experience of looking for information on your Web site is altering your agency's public face. How well citizens understand your mission is too important an issue to ignore.

You will become most effective when you can identify exceptions to general rules. Sometimes it's possible to tell what visitors are looking for, even when they don't know it yet, by the way they click through the site. In analyzing visitor logs, you can see the click-streams that lead to your most popular information.

That's when you will know how to make the most effective use of ads, letting citizens complete their searches before you try to distract them with other information.'


Shawn P. McCarthy designs products for a Web search engine provider. E-mail him at smccarthy@lycos.com.

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