What effect does banner blindness have on online marketing?

The first advertising banner was placed on the website Wired.com in October 1994. The site belonged to the web magazine HotWired, a digital spin-off to Wired magazine, which still exists today. The client of this banner advertisement was the telecommunications group, AT&T. In addition to the colourfully written question, 'Have you ever clicked your mouse right HERE?', the ad also contained an arrow pointing to the prophetic answer 'YOU WILL', written in big white letters. There wasn’t a company logo present, but the 'YOU WILL' slogan also adorned the company’s TV campaign.

Advertising banners should go towards benefitting both parties: AT&T was happy with the result since many website visitors responded positively and clicked on the ad, and the magazine attracted a lot of attention with its innovative concept helping them make a considerable profit within six months - thanks to advertising revenue. The click-through rate (CTR) of this first web banner was a remarkable 44% meaning that out of 100 users that saw it, 44 clicked on it, which is a figure that marketers can only dream of today.

If you look at the statistics from the Google Display Benchmark Tools, you will notice that only one or two users out of 1,000 actually click on online averts across the various website formats. There are many factors contributing to this low number and one of them in a phenomenon known as 'banner blindness' or 'ad blindness'.

What is banner blindness?

Banner blindness is a phenomenon that describes the act of site visitors consciously or unconsciously ignore advertising banners or banner-like elements. The term was mainly coined in the work of Benway and Lane in 1998. They carried out a web usability study, in which test subjects had to search for specific information on specifically-programmed sites in a private network. This information could be easily found by clicking on relevant banners. Sometimes these banners resembled well-known advertising banners and other times they looked very different. The appearance did not matter to the test subjects since the experiment confirmed the assumptions that the banners were mostly ignored and that text links were favoured instead. A further result was the realisation that banners placed at the top of the page were noticed less often compared to those positioned further down. Since this banner blindness study was carried out, this phenomenon has increased considerably, proving the sharp decline in the number of click-through rates in display advertising.

What are the reasons for banner blindness increasing?

There are many causes and explanations for the steady increase in banner blindness: the user’s internet-savvy brain is now trained to recognise that many website elements such as banners or large images and so on resemble advertising. So they instinctively know it’s something they haven’t been deliberately looking for. Unconsciously blanking out typical areas and elements is therefore a logical reaction. This is also confirmed by the fact that users who surf the web without a target in mind are more likely to click on advertisements.

Banner blindness has increased due to fake dialogue boxes especially. Users were often shown error messages, prize confirmations, or virus warnings disguised as the typical 'OK' and 'Cancel' buttons. When a user clicked on them, they were suddenly presented with advertisements or their computer was infected with malware – a technique that is still used today and is one of the three most unpopular advertising strategies alongside pop-ups and slow-loading ads.

In the end, banner blindness is also the result of the strong sensory overload that visitors experience when visiting a website. The TV and print ad industry has started focusing more on this topic, making the subconscious perception of advertising an important research subject.

Banner blindness – also a big topic in web development

The problem of banner blindless isn’t just limited to advertisements: web developers are also now forced to deal with the phenomenon. Since website users unconsciously decide which elements to notice and which to disregard, they sometimes end up blanking out content that isn’t an advertisement at all. Large, banner-like images as well as ads in typical advertising locations such as in the right column or in the header receive much less attention, in particular. Developers on one hand have the task of avoiding these areas or filling them with less important content, and on the other hand they must be very careful regarding the shape and placement of images. If possible they should test how effective they are.

The latter is easier said than done: there is the possibility of carrying out A/B testing, which is when two different versions of a web project are presented to test subjects to find out which is the most effective and then the final version is rolled out. However, this type of test functions more as an evaluation of the general usability of a website, not a blindness test per se. Just how pronounced banner blindness is, can, under certain circumstances, be evaluated. It can’t be proven with absolute certainty though, since it forms an essential part of user behaviour. For this reason, developers should ask themselves beforehand which elements they consider to be ad-like or unimportant. In this way, they can eliminate potential stumbling blocks before the actual test phase and have a better view of potentially critical elements.

Various eye-tracking studies conducted over the last few years have also helped during the development phase of building a site. Eye movement is recorded by tracking devices and then displayed virtually using heatmaps. This method has already been used mainly in neuroscience, linguistics, and product design. It has been put into practice by Jakob Nielsen (among others) in an extensive web usability study. The results that he presented in his 2009 work, 'Eyetracking Web Usability', confirmed the existence of the phenomenon of banner blindness. Today, numerous providers such as EyeQuant offer an eye-tracking analysis of web projects by using software that gathers up scientific data. Other tools such as Mouseflow generate heatmaps based on mouse movements.

Native advertising brings light into the darkness

While web developers are able to deal with banner blindness, creative minds in the advertising industry need to find new ways of communicating their messages to internet users. In addition to banner blindness many users today also rely on ad blockers that stop banners and pop-ups from appearing since they are often perceived as annoying and untrustworthy. This doesn’t have any effect on the click-through rate because ads that have actually been displayed count towards that tally. For internet advertisers though, blocking tools are a serious problem.

And even if recent developments aim to provide users with limited access to content when using one of these filters, the problem of banner blindness can only really be solved if advertisers come up with alternative, innovative ideas. One strategy developed in the US is known as native advertising. The main idea of this concept is to integrate advertising into the general content of a website or web application without the user perceiving it as such. To achieve this ads need to be as close as possible to the content type being used in the respective text – whether that comes in the form of texts, blog posts, or videos.

Mobile devices appear to be helping online advertising to revive and once again become a profitable and growth-promoting factor for companies. If the phenomenon of banner blindness is only slightly prevalent on smartphones, tablets, etc., marketers have been forced to use creative advertising banner alternatives due to the small screen size. Pop-up ads are also somewhat more successful on mobile devices than on desktops, thanks to the inherent inaccuracy of using touch screens with your finger, etc.

Typical examples of native advertising can be found in droves on social networks. Whether on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest: advertisements appear automatically on the user’s timeline in the style of editorial articles (articles, images, videos, etc.) if the user’s digital profile has suggested they could be a potential customer. Meanwhile influencers such as athletes, actors, or models, actively participate in the advertising process by casually presenting brands or products in their posts. In order to combat users’ banner blindness, it is often necessary (in the case of marketing) to be creative and always be one step ahead of the consumer.