Banner blindness, while both the bane of digital publishers and advertisers, is an uncomfortable reality that both need to understand and then attempt to overcome.
As the digital landscape became increasingly filled with ads, website visitors started to experience a psychological phenomenon called banner blindness. This is where they become blind to, and ultimately ignore, banner ads.
This isn’t good news for many publishers who have come to rely heavily on advertising revenue to underpin the business model. While global digital ad spend is predicted to grow from an estimated $626.9 billion in 2023 to $835.8 billion, publishers should still work to ensure their ad inventory is delivering the maximum bang for buck to avoid advertisers seeking a higher return on ad spend (ROAS) elsewhere.
Before trying to combate banner blindness to increase click-through rates (CTRs), publishers should first fully understand what banner blindness is and the extent of the problem it poses.
This article explores relevant banner blindness statistics, examines its causes, and explains how publishers can optimize their banner advertising to combat banner blindness in the average internet user.
Table of contents:
What Is Banner Blindness?
Banner blindness refers to a selective attention phenomenon, where internet users tend to ignore or overlook ads, particularly banner advertisements. These banners are displayed prominently on the top, bottom, or sides of pages in order to grab users' attention.
The term banner blindness was coined in 1998 by psychologist Jan Panero Benway (PDF download) as a result of website usability tests. Benway used an eye-tracking experiment that found when people are looking at a banner, they look past it rather than directly at it, even when the ad is bright and attention-grabbing.
For example, in an experiment where users were asked to identify the ad for internet classes, as seen below, the majority of users skimmed past the large, brightly colored banners boldly stating, ‘New! Internet Classes', and clicked on the classes tab at the bottom of the page.
This is even more prevalent when users are looking for specific information on a website—they will selectively shield their awareness of ads, particularly banner ads in their search to find the relevant content. One study from 2013 found that 86% of consumers suffer from banner blindness.
While there doesn’t appear to be any more recent research on how many consumers suffer from banner blindness, there are grounds for thinking that the numbers remember relatively consistent.
For example, while there hasn’t been much in the way of technical innovation in the banner ad space, the format continues to play a pivotal role in publisher revenue models. Indeed, if you look at the table below you can see that the amount of money spent on banner ads is expected to climb from an estimated $161.8 billion in 2023 to slightly more than $207 billion in 2027.
So, what causes banner blindness and how can we work at combatting it?
What Causes Banner Ad Blindness?
Early marketing principles dictated that ads should be bright, loud, and large to gain consumers' attention. Benway’s research, however, showed that when it comes to the web, users often skip over or miss links and messages included in ads.
Benway and other psychologists believe this is down to information overload. With an overwhelming amount of information presented to us in an ever-increasingly media-saturated world, humans are suffering from information fatigue.
Some research has found that info overload means web users don't read web pages word by word, instead scanning the page for relevant information. This means ad content is often missed, leading to a low click-through rate (CTR) and poor returns on ad spend (ROAS).
Cognitive schema is a mental framework that allows humans to organize and interpret information.
These frameworks help humans understand concepts when presented with a similar environment. In the context of web user behaviors, consumers use stored schemas to navigate websites, online feed content, and mobile apps. This means they will direct their attention to areas of a page where they expect to find the information they are looking for.
These schemas also play a prominent role in banner blindness, with users ignoring places where ads are typically displayed, such as the top of the page and the right sidebar.
The following elements are central in contributing to banner blindness.
1. Ad Placement
As mentioned above, the location of ad units plays a prominent role in banner blindness. Because the vast majority of internet users will have scrolled hundreds of similar pages displaying banner ads in the past, they’ve since learned to skip over the section where they expect to see an ad.
4. Ad Clutter
Another reason for banner blindness is that there are simply too many ads.
If a website is cluttered with popup ads, text ads, and banner ads, users experience sensory overload and lose the ability to absorb information.
Ultimately this causes publishers to lose monetization opportunities, as users tune out of the ad content and focus solely on the content they originally came for.
3. Visuality and Ad Style
Users are trained that ads will have a specific visual appearance. This conscious or unconscious expectation of how ads look means users simply avoid them as they scan through the content.
The following elements will generally indicate to a user that they are encountering an ad (causing them to skip over it):
- Alternative formatting: different font, font color, etc.
- A background that is different color from the rest of the site's scheme
- Text embedded in the image
This is where native ads come into their own. Native ads are cohesive with the page content, assimilating with the design and behaving consistent with the platform. This helps the viewer feel that the ad belongs there.
4. Perceived Usefulness
According to one study from 2021, 58% of consumers respond positively to ads being personalized to their interests and shopping behaviors.
As such, knowing your target audience is essential. Keep in mind that a viewer's responsiveness to display advertising can be closely linked to personalization. As such, relevant ads and personalized ads are more likely to gain users' attention and minimize banner blindness.
5. Ads Drag Down the Adjacent Elements Too
Ads that fall prey to the above issues don't just render themselves invisible to the user, they damage the content surrounding them. Users will often skip content beside banner ads, as their cognitive schema deems it as the same visual section.
How Banner Blindness Affects Publishers?
With more than 1.13 billion websites, the competition for online advertising has grown exponentially. Placing banner ads in areas where users expect ads to appear has been shown to hurt click-through rates (CTRs).
As such, publishers need to curate their content style carefully to ensure they get their ads noticed. Poorly designed ads that are irrelevant to the target audience are a surefire way to alienate consumers and drive away prospective customers.
If publishers and advertisers understand the fundamentals of how humans read web pages, they can employ several techniques to avoid banner blindness.
How Humans Read Webpages?
The principles of cognitive schema and the ever-changing nature of the internet and user search patterns mean that banner blindness will likely never be overcome.
However, by understanding how the human brain processes information on the web, publishers can predict user behaviors and place elements in the most appropriate places to draw users' attention and ultimately reach their sales and monetization goals.
The way users scan web pages is dictated by several factors, including:
- Users' motivation
- User goals
- Page layout and text formatting
- Page content
Depending on their primary motivator, users will scan the page in one of the following ways.
The F Pattern
In 2006, leading user experience (UX) researchers at Nielsen Norman Group (NNG) found that people scan web pages and phone screens in various patterns, one of the most common of them being in the shape of the letter F, as seen in the above image.
This F-shaped scanning pattern is characterized by scanning predominantly at the top of the text section and left-hand side of a page.
This scanning pattern tends to avoid banner ads which typically appear above the text and in the right side bar.
Scanning in an F shaped pattern involves the following:
- Users start by reading the upper part of the content area in a horizontal pattern. This forms the F's top bar.
- From here, readers move the page and read in a second horizontal movement, forming the F's lower bar.
- Finally, readers scan the left side of the page in a horizontal movement, which forms the F's stem.
Understanding the F pattern is crucial for web publishers, as this style of reading has been shown to avoid most banner ads.
The F pattern generally predominates when users are not necessarily interested in the page content.
When users genuinely want to pay attention to what they are reading, there are many other user behaviors they will employ, including the Gutenberg Rule.
The Gutenberg Design
The Gutenberg rule is reading behavior that is dictated by the western habit of reading left-to-right and top-to-bottom.
According to the Gutenberg rule, a web page is broken down into four quadrants:
- Primary optical area
- Strong fallow area
- Weak fallow area
- Terminal area
The Gutenberg rule predominates when a page is text-heavy, and its visual elements are evenly distributed. The primary optical area receives the most attention in the Gutenberg design regardless of the user's motivation and intent. They then read the strong follow area before quickly the weak visual area and terminal area.
Publishers need to note that they can mix up content and divert users from falling into the Gutenberg rule. It simply takes some intelligent optimization.
How to Optimize Your Banner Ads to Avoid Banner Blindness?
Banner ads suffer from low click-through rates (CTRs), with some research suggesting the average CTR for display ads across all industries was a mere 0.46% during the pandemic.
By carefully considering cognitive schema and user behavior, publishers can use the following techniques to optimize their banner ads and maximize ad revenue.
1. Experiment With Size and Placement
As mentioned before, users expect ads to look a certain way and be placed in a specific spot on a page, hence banner blindness.
Typically, standard ads units are 728 x 90 leaderboards and 300 x 250 rectangles, placed at the top of the page and in the right sidebar.
Such ads are predictable and therefore are easily avoided by the eye.
By experimenting with different sizes and ad placements, publishers can capitalize on digital real estate that avoids traditional banner locations for maximum impact advertising.
Some studies suggest that unconventional placements that are less intrusive can drive higher engagement levels.
One option publishers may want to consider is welcome page ads. Welcome page ads contain a welcoming thought or quote before directing the reader to their content.
They have become increasingly popular recently, particularly on news and media sites.
2. Stop Making Your Ads Look Like Ads
The rising popularity of native ads can be explained by the fact that contrary to looking like a banner ad, they look, and feel, like part of the surrounding digital landscape.
Designing ads that match the surrounding content in color, font, type, and background will go a long way to diminishing banner blindness and upping ad revenue.
3. Use Interactive Advertising
Interactive ads that employ rich media to encourage the audience to interact have been shown to have much higher engagement.
Some examples of interactive ads include:
- Short video ads with high video quality
- Playable ads
- 3D ads
- Augmented reality ads
Banner blindness is a severe problem in digital advertising, with many publishers losing valuable monetization opportunities.
By understanding how humans read web pages and continually optimizing and testing their banner ad campaigns, publishers and advertisers can ensure they don't get ignored.
If you're making more than $2,000 in monthly ad revenue,contact us today to learn more about how Publift can help increase your ad revenue and best optimize the ad space available on your website or app.