How to Sidestep Banner Blindness

Martyn Talbot

Published Tue 11 Nov by Martyn Talbot in Marketing More Effectively

Numerous studies have shown that online users are 'blind' to advertisements, so how can you engage your users without using ads?

According to usability expert Jakob Nielsen, 'users almost never look at anything that looks like an advertisement, whether or not it's actually an ad'

The concept of banner blindness has been with us since 1999, when Texan PhD student Jan Benway conducted a range of usability experiments to track what users notice and act on when they are browsing online. Banner blindness means that online users routinely ignore anything that looks like an ad, even if it is not, in fact, an advertisement at all. 

Last year, Dave Chaffey of Smart Insights said: 'Display ads only gain around one click every 1,000 impressions. Shocking! It seems that banner blindness is alive and kicking'

It might be tempting to disguise ads as useful content, in order to get users to engage with them, and according to Jakob Nielsen, this has not proven to be ineffective. However, he does not advocate this as a long-term strategy. It may get you initial engagement, but sneaky tactics like this can backfire. Duping users into reading ads as content will not only annoy them now, but they are also less likely to trust you in the future. 

Ethical Practice Gains Customer Loyalty

So ads don't get clicked on, and disguising your ads as content can damage customer loyalty. How, then, can you get your target audience to engage with you and your products / services?

Being upfront and honest with them is a good start. 

And giving your customers what they want and need, without ulterior motives, is another way of building loyalty over time. 

Paul Hill, writing in The Guardian, said: 'Smart brands are looking for ways to be useful to customers; to engage them with brand content they want to share'

Practical Guidance

1. Tell stories - good stories are a timeless way of conveying information. They are universal, associated with leisure and pleasure rather than work, business and advertising. People respond to them generally in a positive way. Stories can be engaging, funny, sad, emotional. They can connect us to others in a subtle way. We like to read about people doing things, rather than direct assaults on our attention from advertisements telling us why such and such a product is essential to our wellbeing. 

  • Pieminister have a link entitled 'Read our Story' - it immediately gets website visitors involved, and it makes the company seem more human and therefore accessible
  • As well as telling the story chronologically, so visitors can see first-hand how the company developed and who runs it, they use eye-catching graphics to help narrate the story. This is great for online audiences, with images being far easier to digest than large blocks of text
  • The story uses humour, and conveys something about the personalities of the founder members. The play on words used '1st minister' is congruent with the word-play used in the company's name: Pieminister. Humour, when used cleverly, appeals to large numbers of internet users, and is more likely to be shared

2. Fulfil the users' need -  Traditional advertising spiel tells readers they need a product or service, but increasingly, websites are showcasing their products by showing. You can be creative in how you show your users that your product or service is what they are looking for. 

Image of Lush page showing close up picture of a face with writing overlaid

  • Lush showcase their products in a gentle, non-invasive way, leaving the visitor to decide for themselves if this is what they want. Instead of a full-on approach of obvious marketing, they use a powerful image and clear, simple text to lure the browser in 
  • The clear focus is on the benefits for the customer should they decide to buy: 'crafted to help your skin look its best'
  • The use of the word 'your' works to draw in the reader - if they can clearly see themselves in the picture (even if only figuratively, not literally), they're more likely to engage

3. Content that is shareable - The trick is to produce content that people will be interested in and will want to share. How can you do this?

  • Give something away for free - everyone loves something for nothing, and they love a bargain. They are more likely to share free offers or discounts with their friends and colleagues. And while it isn't active marketing, offering stuff for free can end up having this effect. Getting people through your door with genuinely free stuff will give them a taste of who you are and what you're about. And once they've sampled your product or service and like it, they are well on their way to becoming a loyal, return customer
  • Good news - people love to hear success stories- about someone achieving something special, especially if they have overcome barriers. So harness any stories you have in your company about your employees and spread the word. Using images can capture people's imagination, and they are more likely to share photographs than large blocks of text
  • Funny content - people share more when something is humourous - this is hard to get right, and beware of controversial topics, but showing that you and your business have a light side and are human is always a good way to go in terms of building relationships with your audience
  • Surprise them - people are more likely to share content that has a 'wow' factor to it- if you can induce surprise: 'Gosh, I didn't know that,' or awe: 'How on earth did they do that?' , your content is more likely to catch on

So, we've talked about the prevalence of banner blindness and how it can affect your marketing strategy. 

We've looked into how you can sidestep banner blindness by making the focus of your marketing strategy not direct advertising, but content that people will find useful and engaging and will want to share with others. 

Please use our comment section below to feed back to us about how you've found this article. We're always interested to hear about your experience and expertise. 

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