Scientific proof that no one pays attention to banner ads

Image: Eric Gay/AP Photo
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Display advertisements on websites—the kind that stand apart from the content and invite you to click through for more information—are widely seen as ineffective and annoying. That perception is confirmed in a new study that found native ads, which blend into a website’s design and sometimes even offer related content, more engaging than traditional display ads.

For the last year, the audience measurement company Nielsen and the native advertising company Sharethrough have used neuroscience and eye-tracking technology to study how readers process different types of online ads.

The side-by-side images below show a composite of where readers focus their attention when looking at two web pages on a tablet for 15 seconds—one with native ads (like the advertising here on Quartz) and one with display ads. From the right image, with a display banner ad at the bottom of the page, it’s apparent that people ignored it. On the left image, the native ad was not set apart, and viewers’ eyes passed over it along with the website’s own content. Overall, Sharethrough found that people on tablets spent twice as much time focusing on native ads compared with banner ads.

No love for the banner ad (bottom of right image).
No love for the banner ad (bottom of right image).
Image: Sharethrough

Sharethrough’s head of research, Melinda Staros, says this doesn’t mean the messaging from banner ads is entirely lost on consumers. “It’s just that they’re not being focused on,” she tells Quartz. Typically, readers spend more time focusing on text—in this case, the headlines and descriptions—compared with images, which people can process with their peripheral vision. ”It’s because you can process images without having necessarily looked at them,” she adds.

Nielsen and Sharethrough say their study as the first time neuroscience has been used to quantify the impact of native ads. It squares with available data on clickthrough rates: Overall, users tend to click on display ads just a fraction of a percent of the time, compared with 1% or higher for native ads (GE, for example, touts an 8% click-through rate for one native ad campaign).

“The distinction here is that native ads are really able to become part of that storytelling feed, whereas banners are only able to be seen in a peripheral sense,” says Staros.