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The History of Display Advertising: Everything You Need to Know

  • 14 August 2017
  • Dean Schmid

Chiseled into copper plates and written on papyrus advertisements were common all over the ancient worlds of the Egyptian, Chinese, Romans, and Greeks.

Throughout the 7th 11th century oral advertisements were common in South East Asia, and paintings on rocks in Northern Africa were used to push the wares of the day.

This advertisement is for the Liu Family’s needle shop from the Song Dynasty. It is widely considered the earliest recorded advertisement.

In more recent times, since the invention of the Gutenberg Printing press, display advertisements have found their way into every printed medium.

Direct mail, tabloid magazines, and catalogs have been stuffed into letterboxes since the 1900’s. The first billboards went up in the 1830’s. Street railways were painted with brands in the 1850’s. Display advertising has found its way onto every conceivable surface for the last couple millennium.

Image result for the first billboard

The History of Online Display Advertising

Given display advertisings almost parasitical ability to latch onto mediums be it to paint on a wall or a poster in 4000BC, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that display advertising was there at the very beginning of the internet.

In 1993, The Global Network Navigator was the first commercial website.

Image result for first commercial website the global network navigator

It had embedded advertisements, but they were more links than display advertisements. The internet had to wait another year for takes credit for inventing the banner ad, in 1994.

At the time, their site was called AT&T paid HotWired $30,000 for three months of real estate on the top of their site. Their investment paid off. The ad enjoyed click-through-rates of around 44%.

Downloading banner ads over dial-up connections seriously increased the amount of time it took to load a web page but wired still manage to sign up 14 companies to display their 468 x 60 pixels ads.

Wall Street

Banner ads continue to increase in popularity. They were momentarily reevaluated during the dot-com bust, but then continued their domination of the web.

Image result for google adsense ads

Google AdSense came along in 2003. After Google purchased Applied Semantics, the ad server was able to read text on a site and serve relevant ads. This was the first-time display ads had been targeted. Considering factors like the user’s geographic location, age, demographic, and the search made, Google’s AdSense could show ads to relevant impressions.

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Not to be confused with Google AdWords which is Google’s search ad network.

Interestingly, when AdSense first came out there was a lot of criticism of it and display ads in general. The logic being that the text on a website wasn’t as indicative of the user’s intention as a Google Search.

In 2005, Google allowed advertisers to opt out of AdSense effectively separating the two platforms.

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Programmatic Display Advertising

Googles AdSense was a forerunner of programmatic display advertising, which really kicked off with real-time bidding. Basically, with RTB, advertisers can bid in real time on the impression a user is about to get on this site. An advertisement will then be served and fill up the ad space. Display advertisements are falling out of favor for programmatic advertising, but there was a time when banners ads and display creatives were all these platforms could show people.

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In the fractions of a second it takes for a webpage to load, data about the user and the ad space are shared with programs that belong to advertisers, and they bid to show their ad in the space.

People Just Stopped Clicking

Slowly but surely people just stopped clicking. Popups were universally despised, businesses started to lure audiences in with non-disruptive content, and engagement dropped right off.

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Click-through-rates are at an all-time low of about 0.06%. Google AdWords and Facebook CTRs are still a little over 1%, but these pages tend to have higher intent.

Social Display Ads and Native Ads

Native ads aren’t a new phenomenon but their recent popularity can be chalked down to the fact that they get better CTRs and general engagement than more traditional formats of display advertising.

By blending in with the content it isn’t as intrusive on the user’s experience and consequently, people are more likely to click on native advertising. Premium native ads see higher engagement that traditional display

A lot of in-feed native display adverting occurs on social media. In 2010 Facebook brought out their self-service ad network and in early 2012 introduced sponsored content, positioning social to dominate display, native, and programmatic advertising.

Mobile’s Effect on Display Advertising

Another reason for display advertising falling out of favor with users is that banner ads are even more disruptive to the user’s experience on a mobile device.

Image result for disruptive Mobile banner ads

They actually have a slightly higher click-through-rate but most advertisers attribute this to accidental clicks, who hasn’t accidentally opened an ad on their phone and thrown a tantrum?

When people aren’t being annoyed by display advertising they are flat out ignoring it. Terms like banner blindness and ad fatigue are used to describe and almost physiological change to the human mind that’s given people, young people especially, an unprecedented ability to completely ignore display advertisements.

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The Turning Point

Display advertising isn’t dead it just needs an upgrade. RTB and other programmatic techniques can better target audiences so ads are only shown to hyper-targeted people and marketers are getting much better at retargeting.

Native advertising is helping brands get their ads out there without disrupting the user, circumnavigating the 41% of people using ad blockers, and showing ads infeed, which is much more mobile friendly.

The future of display adverting is all about bringing it up to speed and in line with how people are using the internet.

About Dean Schmid