Category Archives: AOL

Why banner ads are ugly

Some people aren’t keen on banner ads because they clutter up web content for consumers and have low response rates for marketers. They work, but making them work is a science. This is why we were elated when AOL announced Project Devil in October 2010 — a new ad format that would prettify banners, take up a full third of a web page, and put the editorial “stuff you want to read” in the remaining two-thirds as seen in the image above. The ads were both bigger but less obtrusive; cleaner, like a magazine layout; and able to hold several components including video for just a single advertiser. If it worked, the reading consumer would see less clutter and the advertiser would win more splash — both parties win!

Alas, Business Insider reports Devil Ad sales are down in Q1. AOL’s overall audience is down too, sliding in the U.S. from 60 million monthly uniques when Devil Ads launched in October 2010 to 41 million today, according to Quantcast. The ads cost much more than regular banners, about $48 CPM vs. the $2 to $4 CPM smart buyers can get through ad exchanges or ad networks. Apparently a 12x price increase didn’t offset the beauty and functionality of digital ads that don’t get in your way.

Ben Kunz is vice president of strategic planning at Mediassociates, an advertising media planning and buying agency, and co-founder of its digital trading desk eEffective.

Posted on Google+.

The 1-out-of-6,250 math of Facebook fan pages

Is this a sign of a bubble? Lately you can’t watch a TV spot without seeing a major brand bray “visit us at” This would be a bit funny if we hadn’t seen it before, a decade ago, when firms cried out their AOL keywords in every advertisement. We surfed over to an old discussion board about “What happened to AOL keyword ______?” and found these prescient comments:
Question: I remember about 10+ years ago, whenever a tv commercial or something had an add [sic], they would give a website or “aol keyword food” or something like that… however, you never hear this anymore… ist it even around still… just wondering, does anyone even remember this.. or heck, did anyone ever even use them, i didnt.

Answer: It is no longer fashionable to advertise AOL keywords, since the better companies have their own websites, and the members of the buying public are now savvy enough to visit REAL websites instead of AOL keywords (even though a number of them still aren’t smart enough to ditch AOL as their ISP).
Sound familiar? So let’s do some quick math on how well Facebook, the modern AOL portal, is performing. To see how one of the world’s largest banks fares on today’s largest social network, we visited Bank of America’s Facebook fan page.
1. Bank of America has 9,367 Likes.
2. Bank of America serves 1 out of 2 homes in the U.S., about 57 million households.
3. Do the math, um, carry the 2, and that is a 0.016% Like rate.
Of course, not everyone is on Facebook, but households typically hold more than one person, so we’ll call it a wash. We’ll also not discuss that Bank of America has 300,000 employees and operates in 40 countries, so the % response is actually much lower. Conclusion: 1 out of 6,250 U.S. Bank of America customers Like them.
It is curious that so many brands are rushing to stake a place inside the Facebook portal, when the potential Like payoff has so little value. Facebook users don’t really care to connect, in the majority, with companies; if they want to find your brand, they can do so via Google or by typing in your URL. And if they want to Like you, you can promote the option with a button on your own website. Truth is, much of the rush toward Facebook is a lemming-like leap off a cliff, hoping that the glowing Facebook aura will infuse your own brand with a halo. And maybe, just maybe, with all those FarmVille-chatty connections, your brand will go viral.
Yeah. We could calculate this another way: The typical U.S. consumer sees 166 TV commercials each day (5 hours and 9 minutes of average television viewing with 16-18 minutes of commercials per hour, most 30-seconds long). Does anyone want to have a relationship with 166 brands? Of course not. Marketers have always chased audiences, and as Facebook nears 700 million viewers, it certainly has a sweet customer goldmine. We don’t dismiss a Facebook fan page for brands that really can build communities of passionate support. But like sneakers, bras and Bank of America financial accounts, in media, one size does not fit all. Instead of building a microsite inside Facebook hoping the throngs there will find you, perhaps your energy is better invested in building a reason for an audience to come see where you already are.

Ben Kunz is vice president of strategic planning at Mediassociates, an advertising media planning and buying agency, and co-founder of its digital trading desk eEffective.

AOL cleans up your banner crud

Three years ago’s online content ecosystem had 120 million monthly users. Today, the number has collapsed to 60 million — so AOL is upping its game with an innovation called Project Devil. AOL is streamlining content on its web pages and also making ads look better — with a clean vertical box at the right of each page, one advertiser per page, and a simple layout that makes it easy (gasp) to actually read the articles. It’s a continuation of the trend triggered by Apple’s iPad, in which consumers became stunned to see that web content could actually look pleasing to the eye.

AOL concludes with a tagline that strikes to the heart of any planner struggling with poor click-through rates: “Advertisers own one third of the web. Imagine actually enjoying that 33.3%.” At this point implementation seems theoretical; AOL’s home page still looks like a car-salesmen-weather-guy-convention afterhours dance party mosh pit. But we love the theory.

ABC News’ local iPhone portal play

Way back in the 1990s companies such as Prodigy, Earthlink, AOL and Yahoo were in a race to become your online “portal” — the single-stop-shop for you to get on the internet. The buzzword of the day was “stickiness,” meaning if you made your web site sticky, customers would return again and again.

About 2000 Google killed these arrogant hopes with its brilliant search engine, since then the main way consumers move online. Yet guess what? The portal play is returning on mobile handsets.

ABC News makes the latest bid with yet another “app” button for your iPhone. (Apps, on smartphones, are downloadable programs that allow users to leap online with a simple tap, and like the portals of yore create new opportunities for single content producers to try to make consumers stick.) ABC News has a nice offering, using the built-in GPS service in the iPhone to provide a feed of local news and weather … and hopefully get consumers to stick around for 20/20, Charles Gibson and all the corresponding ad impressions.

Funny thing is, this time portals may work. Standard web browsers look horrible on most cell phones, and one-button mobile apps give you just the content you want — weather, NY Times, Facebook — with one simple click. Pew notes that by the year 2020 (no connection to ABC!) mobile phones will be the most common tool for consumers getting online. You can almost hear Google gasp in frustration as the big PC browser that made its ad model so powerful starts to fade from tiny handset screens.

How this shakes out is anyone’s guess, as every content producer tries to create the ultimate single-button-widget for your handset. It also creates a devilish question for marketers — if you miss the right portal, you may get shut out from consumers, so which of the millions of potential online apps do you pick?

It’s all enough to make you hope Google creates a simple mobile operating system.

AOL walks away from its brand

Forget naked Scarlett Johansson. Now, brands are getting undressed, too.

AP reports that a host of new AOL sites are targeting niche audiences by leaving the AOL brand behind. WalletPop for personal finance, Spinner for hip music, and StyleList for fashion push the AOL name to near invisibility — apparently, big ol’ AOL is a little stodgy. For example, if you visit Asylum, an edgy new site for men, you’ll only see tiny AOL links in the submenu … beside a near-naked Scarlett Johansson.

It’s a fascinating move, as the whole groundswell of microsites and blogs and hub-and-spoke strategies for disseminating messages make the old portals disappear. Today, AOL no longer matters in many categories, but AOL has bravely recognized this. Mike Rich, a senior VP at Asylum, noted that research showed a name like AOL Men “wouldn’t connect.” So Asylum it is.

How about your brand? Does it work for everyone, or should you start putting on new clothes?

Facebook, you just got poked by AOL

We just found a killer social media site: Has private log-ins, customizable pages, built-in instant messaging, friend invitations, and even news feeds.

It’s called — back in February 2000.

We spoke today to a reporter for BusinessWeek and, while we won’t give away the story, one question revolved around who will win among today’s social media. It all reminds us of the portal game back in the 1990s, where sites such as AOL tried to control consumer access to the web by building “sticky” features. Today, Facebook and MySpace and other social nets are trying to control the one thing they really can, your connection to friends online. This single feature — not photos or video sharing or email, which is about all else social media does — is what makes Facebooks so appealing.

But what happens if the friend connection becomes a commodity? Charlene Li at Forrester predicted it. Google is working on it. When consumers finally become the center of their online relationships by controlling relationships with a utility as simple as your email, a lot of business models, and the advertisers who support them, may fade away.

Your home page is dead. Just ask AOL.

Here’s a screen shot of from way back in 1998. Dig it. AOL was trying, like everyone else in the universe, to create the “sticky” portal that consumers would start the day with, sort of like the front page of The New York Times. Look! Sports! Travel! Lifestyles!

Home pages don’t exist anymore. Most web users start with a Google search, and Google in turn throws the consumer deep into the bowels of your web site — in front of the content they want to see, not the nice path you set up from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Time Warner spent $10 billion in total this year to acquire online ad networks that cast a wide net over the hundreds of thousands of web sites consumers may frequent. AOL’s current chief admitted it.

“We’re not interested in building yesterday’s portal,” said Ron Grant, AOL’s president and chief operating officer. “Consumers are finding what they are looking for is coming from more and more fragmented places. We need a way for advertisers to take advantage of that fragmentation.”

There are two messages here. For advertisers, you need online BREADTH tied into smart ad networks. Your online communications need to bob and weave across the entire net playing field, using tactics such as behavioral targeting (to reach key demos), retargeting (to reach unsold site visitors), or social network ad tests (young viewers spend more time on Facebook than on traditional web sites).

For marketers, the message is to think beyond your product-based HOME page. Your next web redesign should make every page deep in your site relevant, with clear links to other content, because chances are users will land there first. Your home page doesn’t really matter anymore. No one will see your Flash animation. No one is coming to the party through your front door.