Commentary Content

The history of the digital banner ad

23 years ago I was just starting high school, a young pre-pubescent teen just starting to discover my interests and passions that would accompany me the rest of my life.  Art & Technology has always been inspiring to me and an interesting combination of the two first presented itself to me back then.  In fact this was when the world was introduced to the banner ad. Back in the good’ol days of Netscape Navigator.  When computers could literally only display 16 colors.  You 80’s babies will remember what I’m talking about.  

Starting back in the 80’s static images were displayed in system software for companies like CBS, IBM, Sears Roebuck and Co. They utilized banners at the bottom of the screens but these were designed to create awareness only.  They couldn’t be clicked on or redirect anywhere else.  By 87 these banners were slightly more advanced and could contain simple animation with the advent of the GIF. (Graphics Interchange Format)

By the 90’s technology was booming.  Household computing was starting to really take hold and with the introduction of the World Wide Web.  The banner ad we still know it today became a staple across the globe.  

AT&T presented the very first clickable banner ad in 1994.  It was a very simple ad, that read  “Have you ever clicked your mouse right here”.
The results by today’s standard were impossible, they were so outstanding. An overall clickthrough rate of 44%. Keep in mind this was in fact the days of the early internet.  At this point most people were using dial-up phone modems to connect to intranet systems set up as bulletin boards and all text chat rooms.  Minimal pictures and awful user interfaces.  So basically there wasn’t much to “click” at the time.  Nonetheless, this was the start of something big.  By ’95 this was really opening up the potential for advertisers and cross traffic crawling.  

In ’96 Doubleclick showed up on the scene.  Offering advertisers a consolidated way to get metrics across a large variety of media plans and networks.  And in ’99 Macromedia introduced the infamous Flash 1.0, a tool that would soon dominate the digital market forever with the new but awesome Flash Banner ad.

RICH MEDIA PORTFOLIO SAMPLES By the early 2000’s Flash adoption ruled over every other plugin available including Java, Quicktime, Real and even Windows Media Player.  It was being used to excel and develop every aspect of the web.  Dubbed “New Media” back then, we more or less refer to this as digital media now.  By mid decade Flash banner ads were allowing people to stream video for the first time.  Albeit low quality but still, it’s where we started.  Not only that but after Adobe purchased Macromedia’s portfolio and developed Flash’s first actionscript programming language.  It allowed for some truly impressive interactive games and media to be embedded into ads. Personal computing was booming and toward the end of the decade rich media display advertising was too.  Pop-ups, pushdowns, expandables, floating overlays, sidekicks and catfish were among the top performers during at this time.

Another decade gone, now 2010, mobile devices have started to shift the way the entire internet is being accessed.  Problem with that was, the rich media internet we’ve become accustomed to doesn’t deliver quite as well on mobile with throttled wifi and small data plans.  And in combination with the rise of the dreaded adblocker and the problems in the industry surrounding ad fraud and  security, the industry was about to be revolutionized.  Apple, being a premiere mobile leader, wasn’t having it and cut support of Flash for the iPhone.  Taking an ever increasing amount of market share, it wasn’t long before other manufacturers followed suit.  By 2015 the demise of Flash, brought in the new era of digital ads.  HTML5 banner ads.  Thought initially these ads were not quite on par with Flash, they have come a long way in the two years they have been standard.  Virtually anything you could once do with Flash in a ad can be reproduced in HTML5.  Especially if you’re lucky enough to work with talent that’s managed to fully adapt to right brain and left brain processes merging in this ever changing digital landscape.

While the technologies of banner ads have evolved rapidly, the fundamentals of digital ads has remained the same.

Grab attention, raise awareness, prompt a call to action (CTA).

And while the average clickthrough rate these days in Canada is 0.09% and Worldwide is 0.04%, it’s a far cry from the 44% that started this whole industry.  Even with these small numbers though, it remains profitable.   Yes, video and content appear to be on the rise but display HTML5 advertising, especially in its newest standard, which can adapt and respond to its served placement size offers a technology and personalized experience potential that other formats don’t have and may never really be able to deliver.  The digital banner ad has had enormous odds placed against it, yet it’s still here, and here to stay.  

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