Web Ads: Not Just for Banners Anymore

Web advertisers seek new ways of encouraging browsers to interact with their advertising, and come up with 'superstitials'

Banner ads, once revolutionary, are now boring. Everyone says that if Web ads looked more like TV commercials, users would be more likely to interact with them. But many sites don't have the bandwidth to handle rich-media ads, and broadband access still isn't available to most consumers.

Unicast, a New York-based startup backed by Intel Corp., GTE Internetworking, MacManus Group and others, says it has the answer: Superstitials. The company's Java-based rich-media ad format is getting the blessing of four major ad networks - DoubleClick, Adsmart, Flycast and NetGravity - giving Superstitials an important vote of confidence. The firms will support the integration of the format within their networks and have agreed to handle everything from sales to targeting, impression counting and billing for the ads.

Unlike interstitials, the much-reviled pop-up ads that interrupt Web browsing while they load, Superstitials don't bog down your browser. Designed to be minimally intrusive, Superstitials download to a browser's cache memory only after the browser downloads the Web page to which they're linked.

A mouse-click activates the Superstitial, a precached commercial that plays while the requested page loads. Advertisers pay only for those ads delivered in their entirety. They can be of any size and format including HTML, Java, Flash, Director or GIF.

Web publishers appreciate the "polite" loading. And advertisers like the idea of 100K files that let consumers interact. "The Superstitial is a pop-up on steroids," says Sean Black, VP and interactive media director at Grey Direct Interactive, which used the Superstitial format in a SportsLine ad for the Warner Bros. movie Three Kings.

"Superstitials have far exceeded our expectations," Black says. About 8 percent of Web surfers who got the ad interacted with it. In contrast, banner ads have click-through rates of under 1 percent.

While Unicast's technology may be unique, a slew of other companies are also trying to develop a TV commercial approach, including Thinking Media, InterVU, AudioBase and BlueStreak. And just about every car manufacturer has experimented with Enliven-enhanced BeBox windows for broadband ads on AtHome.

Introduced in May, Superstitials have been used on only a few sites so far, including SportsLine, Women.com and Time. But now, with support from the online ad networks, they are more likely to be widely adopted. "The Superstitial goes from being offered on 40 sites to 1,500 sites," boasts Unicast CEO Dick Hopple.

While Superstitials will cost up to four times as much as a regular run-of-network campaign, executives point out that the ads make much more of an impact on consumers. Joanne Currie, Adsmart's VP of marketing, notes that ads the company tested received "somewhere between a 10 percent to 20 percent" click-though rate. "[Superstitials] will benefit both our advertisers, who will get better click-through rates, and our Web publishers, who get higher CPMs," says Currie.

Grey Direct's Black says the move gives agencies more freedom. "We aren't as limited about what sites we choose for our Superstitials," says Black. "I've already signed up four clients for fourth-quarter Christmas ad campaigns."

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