Standard ad formats are the backbone of the digital advertising industry, having driven the medium’s growth from nil in the early 1990s to over $40 billion in 2013.
They are essential to delivering the scale needed by national advertisers. The demands placed on digital ad standards have increased exponentially since their inception, fueled by the rapid increase in bandwidth, device proliferation, and user expectations.
The next generation of standards must work for different ad types (e.g., brand vs. direct response) in a world where content is fluid across screens, while also being flexible enough to accommodate continuous change. Smart marketers, agencies, and publishers are apportioning a percentage of their budget today to experiment with and learn from emerging future formats — not sitting back and waiting for formal standards to emerge.
The future is likely to see a trifurcation of ad types which loosely align with strategic intent: concept ads, content ads, and commerce ads. Next Generation ad standards must enable each of these very different forms to thrive.
Concept Ads are carefully designed and produced “finished files” that are meant to express a creative idea and be served in a fixed manner. They most often have the upper funnel goals of generating brand and attribute awareness along with favorability and intent to purchase.
The IAB Rising Stars, in particular the Full Page Flex and Billboard, are often used for concept ads. When I first started in advertising, one of my tasks was to pick up print ad artwork from the re-toucher and deliver it to the printer. The films that I transported were very much “finished files,” and publications could only render them in one way.
In the digital world, we no longer use actual film, but concept ads that are meticulously designed to look and operate in a specific manner are alive and well. As long as there is a need to create new desire and demand, they will exist.
Content Ads are collections of brand assets that often have no fixed rules about compilation and rendering. They usually have the mid funnel goal of enhancing consumer understanding of a brand or product and accomplish this by providing high-quality content with which the viewer can engage (for example, by reading or viewing, sharing, or commenting).
Content ads frequently are delivered as a stream of assets in a vertical ad format (e.g., IAB Filmstrip, Portrait, or Half Page) or in a stream of content (e.g., Facebook or Twitter in-feed ads). What is currently being called native advertising is the dominant form of content advertising and, as noted in this space previously, will only continue to grow.
Commerce Ads dominate display advertising on the web today and are familiar to anyone who has exited an e-commerce site with goods still in the basket, or who happens to be in the market researching any manner of purchase.
Typically rendered in a previous-generation ad standard, these ads tend to have a single, bottom funnel goal (e.g., purchase, sign-up, etc.), and their design reflects this focus. While they are not typically visually or experientially rich, the rendering and serving logic can be sophisticated to ensure that the right offer is served to each viewer.
This sort of dynamic creative will continue to increase in importance as marketers’ ability to create more distinct commercial options and creative assets catches up with ad tech’s ability to target, render, and serve them.
What Does The Next Generation Look Like?
Next generation ad standards must not only enable concept, content, and commerce ads to thrive, but also to do so in a world where content is fluid across screens. If we don’t already, we will soon live in a world where viewers do not distinguish between screens and simply expect their desired content (e.g., a video program, article, or game) to be available on whatever screen they are in front of at the moment.
In the recent past, this screen-agnostic vision was portrayed only in futuristic television commercials, but today, one only needs to observe the behavior of an average American teenager to see it in real life. Many content creators have responded impressively well.
ESPN’s coverage of the World Cup is a nice example; I am amazed and amused by how inventive people get in New York City to watch the games, from hidden tabs on work PCs, to tablets on the dashboards of waiting limousines, to smartphones propped up on painters’ ladders. While content creators are rising to the cross-screen challenge, ad creators are lagging, reflecting the need for cross-screen ad standards.
Not only must next generation ad standards power concept, content, and commerce ads fluidly across screens, but they must also be flexible enough to accommodate the rapid changes we are sure to continue to see.
While this is an enormous challenge, the good news is that the digital ecosystem has the capacity to overcome it. At no time in the history of advertising has the available breadth and depth of talent, technology, and financial resources been as robust. The trick, of course, is aligning the cooperative forces behind a single goal, and that is where the IAB comes in.
Soon after completing the enormous first phase of revamping the Standard Ad Unit Portfolio, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB, my employer) embarked on Rising Stars NEXT with the goal of establishing next generation ad standards for the industry. This process started with interviews with over 100 marketers, agencies, ad tech companies, and publishers. From these, distinct voices have emerged to advocate for a handful of approaches, including:
Responsive Ad Standard. Many people have pointed out that there is a clear set of best practices for responsive web design and wonder why this is not the case for responsive ad design. Could the next IAB ad standard rectify this mismatch?
Ad Equivalent Standards. Many say that we are quickly moving to a cross-screen buying world, and we cannot afford to wait for a single cross-screen ad standard. Instead, they argue, the industry should agree on a set of ad equivalents in which, for example, “unit A” on the desktop is equal to “unit B” on a tablet and “unit C” on a smartphone. These equivalents can be replaced when cross-screen standards emerge, but in the meantime, meaningful business and the learning that comes with it can flourish.
Ad Component Standards. One approach advocated suggests that the time has passed for standards regarding pixel dimensions and that a more urgent need is standards regarding the ad components. In this scenario, the manner in which, for example, a video or image carousel or social sharing module is delivered would become standardized, enabling more nimble assembly and serving into an array of sizes.
Native Ad Standards. Still another group feels that the IAB should next standardize native ads and let the cross-screen challenge be solved by the market.
Interoperability Standards. Finally, a vocal group has suggested that no new market-facing standards be introduced, but rather that the next set of standards should be about the “plumbing” of ads across screens. This POV is evident in the recent announcement of an effort to potentially bring the IAB’s Video Suite, MRAID, and SafeFrame specifications together. These technical specifications standardize communication between the ad creative and the systems that host the content but are, at present, different for display, apps, and video. Can there be one spec to rule them all?
The growing complexity of the digital advertising ecosystem makes ad standards more necessary today than ever before, but also raises the bar for what the standards must deliver. The next generation of standards must work for different ad types (concept, content, and commerce) in a world where content is fluid across screens, while also being flexible enough to accommodate continuous change.
Smart marketers, agencies, and publishers are not waiting for formal standards to emerge, but rather they are experimenting with and learning from emerging future formats and using the knowledge gained to help influence the industry’s direction.
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