Responsive Design and the Advertising Industry – On A Collision Course?

| Creative + Technology

The interactive industry today reminds me of the old Marshall McLuhan maxim – “The Medium Is The Message.” Essentially: the way that content is delivered has a huge impact on how the audience receives it. Context is everything.

If that’s true (and I believe it is), then, as marketers, we’re living in particularly interesting times.

After all, today’s world is a multi-screen world: 125 million people in the US carry a smartphone, and 50 million own tablets. What’s more, nearly 4 out of every 10 minutes spent online in the US today is done so on a mobile device. And the universe of mobile devices continues to expand and fragment.

So what do all those devices and all that usage really mean for the way we market to consumers moving forward? When we can’t plan for context, how do we make sure we’re delivering a message in the most compelling way?

Web publishers seem to have found their solution – Responsive Design. For those not in the know, Responsive Design is an approach to Web development that assumes content will need to be delivered to multiple screens. Responsive websites are built with flexibility in design and interaction that allows them to be dynamically reconfigured for different screen sizes. Content stays consistent, but layout and interface change to match the user’s screen.

By our analysis here at Undertone, more than 10% of the Web’s top 200 sites (according to comScore) are already built with Responsive Design, including big brands such as Time, Disney, and the BBC. And beyond the top 200 there are thousands of additional sites transitioning to this responsive, multi-screen approach.

This begs the question – As all those websites go responsive, what will the impact be on the advertising that supports them? After all, the ads are an integral part of all those layouts that publishers are reconfiguring, aren’t they? Jack Marshall from Digiday covered this topic in a recent article, going so far as to claim that the lack of innovation in advertising was actually stifling the adoption of Responsive Design. I tend to agree.

Today, responsive sites are essentially taking one of two approaches to their advertisements: Swap or Drop. The Swap method basically replaces ads with smaller versions as screen sizes decrease. Drop is exactly what it sounds like: as a user’s screen gets too small to deliver desktop ad sizes, ads simply drop off the site altogether.

For obvious reasons, neither option puts brand marketers in the best position. When there are only one or two premium slots available on a typical page, and those slots either get replaced or removed for 40% of the audience, predictability and impact go out the window.

To try to find a middle ground, some responsive publishers have standardized around the IAB rectangle, a 300×250 unit that can display properly on just about any screen. But that’s directly opposed to a push from brand marketers in the last few years to transition towards bigger, more engaging ad units like the IAB Rising Stars Units because of a whole host of issues including banner blindness. The rectangle is a perfectly serviceable ad unit, but high impact/high engagement it isn’t.

Compounding these issues is the ad industry’s reliance on Flash – a technology that even Adobe has publicly stopped supporting for mobile. Desktop is where campaign development usually begins for many of our customers, and from simple in-page expandable banners to custom high impact units like the Rising Stars, marketers are starting with Flash – which doesn’t work anywhere other than the PC. At some point, something has to give.

The IAB recently took the first step towards loosening the industry’s reliance on Flash with the release of the first draft of their guidelines for delivering ads in HTML5 (which works across devices). It’s a great starting point, laying out the necessary technical requirements for reproducing the types of interactivity marketers require. But it stops short of reinventing advertising – it’s essentially defining a new approach to the same standard ad units that the industry is trying to get away from.

Looking at how quickly consumers are shifting their time spent online to mobile, and how rapidly Web publishers are migrating to responsive design to keep those environments manageable, I don’t know that the industry has the ability to take small measures in adjusting.

The answer, then, lies in bringing Responsive Design to the advertisers themselves. Building ads in a universal language (HTML5) that responds to the sites and screens they’re delivered to from a single piece of creative. It’s a topic we predict will continue to gain steam in the coming weeks.


Anthony Iaffaldano

Anthony Iaffaldano leads Undertone's Product Marketing team and is responsible for setting the go-to market strategy for the company's portfolio of offerings. An industry veteran with more than a decade of experience in digital marketing and technology, Anthony has focused his career on bringing innovative solutions to market for brands and marketers. When not knee deep in industry jargon, you can find Anthony correcting people on the spelling and pronunciation of his last name (the I sounds like a Y…), or arguing passionately for the relevance of the NHL in the US market. You can find him on Twitter at @brooklahn.


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