"It's really very simple. It's all about traffic."
So says Aly Drummond, Marketing Manager for content provider Python Video (www.pythonvideo .com). And whether it's an on-road or online commute, Drummond is correct. Most specifically for webmasters, it's all about getting traffic where you want it: your site. It doesn't matter whether you're trying to get people to drive to your beloved free site celebrating the beauty of celebrity panty shots, or to the pregnant transsexual dwarf site you hope will fund your early retirement; if you don't get traffic, you might as well be doing it for yourself.
But unlike a conventional roadway, you can't stand on the soft shoulder wearing a sandwich board that reads "Eat at Joe's Peep Show and Coffee Palace." Fortunately, banner ads, one of the most effective solutions available, are also fairly simple to create and inexpensive to distribute.
As all webmasters know, some banner ads work better than others. And a good banner ad can be like a good sweet water well - sometimes it just runs dry. So what can you do to ensure that the banner ads you use are as effective as possible?
"It's all numbers," Drummond explains. "My team and I look at the numbers every week and then we'll experiment. We're very, very, very clearly defining and documenting the changes that we make. We might have a banner that's a certain way and then we might make just a slight change to it the next week and then we'll document any change in the click-through rate."
Although not one of the more romantic aspects of online business, keeping track of your banners' performance is essential if you want to keep your site alive and healthy. "The first and foremost thing is having statistical reporting so that anything having to do with the banner is gauged by real numbers and what's actually happening," says Ron Levi, President of Cybererotica (www.cybererotica.com).
But no matter how much you love an ad, if it's not drawing traffic, it's not working. "If you create a banner and think it's a great banner and people tell you it's a great banner, that's one thing," he says, but whether that ad is actually serving its purpose for your site depends on what your goals are. For webmasters seeking income, things are a bit more complex. "If the banner causes people to click on it, that's not always the most successful banner, either," Levi continues. "Statistical reporting tells us that a banner that just gets a lot of hits - that's not necessarily the most successful banner. The most successful banner is the one that gets a lot of hits and those hits convert to sales."
Too much to think about? Worry not. Basic design and placement concepts are the same whether you're mastering your Web for love or money (or both). Levi's advice isn't esoteric. It's really quite sensible. "Create banners that really represent the site in the best way possible and let people know what the benefits of the site are so they're basically pre-sold when they click on that banner," he says. "You can't be deceptive at all."
Being honest with your surfers may earn you fewer clicks, but the webmaster looking for dollars will find a higher percentage of those clicks producing sign-ups; thus, free sites are more likely to find like-minded surfers and get fewer e-mails that begin with "you reek"; and every webmaster will find that honest representation of their site's contents will ultimately produce something money can't easily buy - a good reputation and surfer loyalty.
"It all comes back to being honest with the end users," says Greg Clayman of Video Secrets (www.videosecrets.com). "If they click and they buy, and there's not what you said there was [on your site], then it affects the last term that a lot of webmasters are concerned about: retention. The average stay is a three-month stay because there are a lot of sites out there. Obviously, you have people who stay years and people who stay days. It should be any webmaster's goal to keep their clients." This is especially true for webmasters who participate in click-through programs, where a payment to a referring webmaster may equal a month's membership fee. Such webmasters simply can not afford to pay out for members who don't renew, so it's best to encourage surfers to stick around by providing what you promised in the first place.
Keeping it honest also helps you keep it simple, which means everyone's happier. "If you have a site dedicated to bondage and discipline and all the pictures are all B&D, and then you have a [banner] talking about 'See Jane Fuck Tom,' then it doesn't really go with [what's on your site]," says Kaiser, President of the adult webmaster resource NetSurprise (www.netsurprise.com). "But if you've got a banner that says, 'See Tom's Dungeon' or 'See What Jane Does in Tom's Dungeon,' - now, that's going to attract more attention. That's going to bring them in."
Videosecrets' Clayman agrees with Kaiser: "If you're [operating] an S&M portal, it would be pretty foolish for you to advertise live Asians. It's always important to target your audience. Take a look at the advertisers around you. Look at your competition."
And don't be afraid to talk to your competition while you're at it. As Clayman and many others point out, "Believe it or not, most people in this industry are very helpful."
Pictures and Words
Because the Web is such a visual medium, it's easy to focus too much attention on what a banner looks like and not enough on what it says. Kaiser joins others in emphasizing how important it is to make sure you're backing up your pretty pictures with powerful words. But he cautions, "A banner is not a place to get too wordy or have too much text."
Clayman's research agrees with that of other successful website owners: Surfers only browse banners, like automobile drivers glancing at roadside billboards. "In a banner, you really want to use ten words or less to get your point out about what you're doing," he advises.
Which ten words you decide to include will ultimately depend on your own fertile imagination and the content of the site that you're promoting. But the experts agree that there are a few words that surfers love to see more than others: "free," "live," "new," "video" - and "sex," of course. "These are some key words that people really pay attention to when they're looking at a banner, because they're not looking at it for long," says Clayman.
Because of this, you'll want to choose your words carefully, probably creating different ads to promote different aspects of your site, and to install in different places at different times. It's also important to rotate and/or update your banners frequently, since, over time traffic varies not only from site to site, but also within a site; for example, the site that sends you a hoard of traffic this week may send you nothing next month.
Influencing this is obviously the kind of traffic going through the sites that you advertise on - and something called "banner blindness." According to Drummond, "There are studies out there that show how many impressions a banner can have before it's useless or relatively useless. Banners should be kept fresh. I think they should be changed weekly or bi-weekly, at least. Otherwise, people just don't see them anymore."
And let's face it. One of the last things we want when we're promoting adult-oriented content is to become invisible. Luckily, webmasters have an edge over print advertisers: "[W]e have the luxury of being able to change things on the fly, right away," says Drummond. "So, pulling traffic with one banner is fine, but if you change it on a regular basis, you'll actually get an idea of what works best."
Art and Science
The software used to track, study and create banners may be scientific, but keeping up with the psychology of the Net and its users is definitely an art. Because of that, successful webmasters dedicate themselves to experimentation and understand that what works today may not have worked yesterday and may not work next week.
Sometimes a subtle change in visuals is all that's required to bring life back to a dead banner ad: Move a scroll bar from one side to the other, change the background color, add an action statement such as "click here," or switch the sexy body that serves as lure. And sometimes it takes a bit more work. If static-image banners aren't working on a site that used to draw traffic, consider switching to an animated banner. "We've been experimenting with different images' click-through rates and we've found that really sort of blind banners that almost seem ugly to us still have the highest click-through rates," says Drummond. "For some reason, the flashing [of animated GIF banners and] text in very, very bright colors against a relatively bland background really stands out against other banners or images that it's competing against."
But do a little research about the page before you pop an animation on it and expect to be flooded with visitors. First off, make sure the page is attracting people who will be interested in your site's content. Then, time how long the page takes to download. Animated banners definitely attract the eye, but sites that are heavy with animation or stocked with bandwidth-intensive content may not retain surfers long enough for your banner to be seen.
Likewise, if the content encourages surfers to move from page to page more quickly than your banner can download, you're wasting your time hanging around. "If I'm looking at the front Web page of Time Magazine," Videosecrets' Clayman illustrates, "I'm probably not going to start reading it until the full page is loaded. So I'll wait for the banner because I'm not really waiting for the banner, I'm waiting for the page to load. However, if you're putting your banners in a situation where time is of the essence, where load time is of the essence like an e-mail, then you probably want to work with one-dimensional banners and the smaller k size." For those wondering what constitutes "smaller" in this case, Clayman advises that the average is approximately 5k.
Also remember to look at any other banners posted on the site; you don't want yours to get lost in a sea of flashing naked people with the words "Free! New! Live!" pasted across their throbbing flesh. "Your eyes are always attracted to movement," says Kaiser. "That's good. But if you have a lot of animated banners on one page, to me it's the equivalent of Times Square. You might actually have somebody click on it, but there's too much going on. It's similar to white space in advertising or desktop publishing."
Okay. You've created an ad that tells it like it is and you're ready to affix it to the ultimate traffic off-ramp website. But where?
That's where the experts disagree. Kaiser recommends the now-standard top of page banner placement, although he admits that "It depends upon the particular situation where you're using it."
Drummond agrees that placement is flexible, but isn't sure the top of the page is so cherry anymore. "There's a lot of research out there to suggest that having a banner on the top of the page isn't the most effective thing to do these days. People are used to seeing a nice rectangular banner at the top of the page." Unfortunately, because they're used to seeing such a banner, it's likely they're used to ignoring it, too. "I know that a lot of people are saying that being at the bottom on the right is good. I don't have a preference. I do believe that it's quite probable that people are kind of blind to the banner at the top of the page now. But, on the other hand, I've got some campaigns where I've got the banner there and it works great."
Of course, one of the beauties of the Internet is that we can break the rules - because there really aren't that many to begin with. "All banners needn't be designed at the industry standard 468 x 60 size," says John Hilton, Graphics Designer for Cybererotica (www.cybererotica.com) and Head of Graphics for NetSurprise (www.netsurprise.com). "Often webmasters prefer thumbnail-size banners that are easy to slot into a site and can be grouped together. Large portrait (vertical) banners work well too, providing they are quick-loading. There's a lot of mileage to be gained in coming up with something different in size and shape and there are endless possibilities."
It's just like maneuvering through meat-world traffic - you have to be creative. Sometimes you can't find a place to park your luxury sedan, but that doesn't mean you can't find a place for your compact car. Same with banner ads. If the site you want to place your ad on is filled with rectangular ads, consider a button shaped, square or other uniquely shaped ad. Combine that with a good knowledge of your surfing audience, frequent banner updates, some punchy text, an eye-catching graphic, and a website that measures up to its advertising and you'll likely be worrying less about how to get traffic to your site and more about how to widen the on-ramp leading to your server.