Don’t Be Afraid to Think Outside the GIF

As digital marketers, we know that advertising vehicles can change.  Ad standards shift.  Popular formats come and go.   But sometimes we are so busy keeping up with the recent innovations that we forget that we – ourselves – can be the driving force behind that innovation. Always allow yourself to think about new ideas, simple twists or changes to the way things are done… because sometimes what you need doesn’t exist yet – so you just have to go out and create it yourself.

For example, years (and years and years) ago, I worked for a certain news network which was known for providing quality, in-depth news and information.  However, that knowledge did not translate to their online presence. Most people, including members of their own audience, thought that the site content was limited to broadcast schedules and host bios.  Even our competitors had no idea that we had online news, to the point where they allowed us to buy advertising on their sites.

It was my job to change that perception.

We started with online advertisements that told our target audience that we provided up-to-the-minute news.  We told them over and over again.  While that helped (a little), telling them didn’t quite move the needle as far as we needed it moved.  We decided we needed to SHOW the online world that we had up-to-the-minute news.  And to do that, we needed dynamic banners.  Of course, we didn’t know they were going to be called “dynamic banners” at the time.

In today’s digital world, the idea of dynamic banners is nothing new.  Nowadays, it’s quite common to see advertisements which are being tailored on the fly based on the individual’s behavior, often right down to the specific product they looked at on a specific website.

However, this was not the case 15 years ago.  In 1999, banner ads were – primarily – simple animated gif ads that often blinked or flashed for no particular reason other than to entice people to click on them.   If they were really fancy, they let you think you were playing some kind of “catch the monkey” game.  Of course, all you were doing was clicking on an animated banner that launched some website, and – at the time – that was ok.  Click-through was KING.  Branding through banner advertisements wasn’t even a consideration.

So, hopefully you can understand that the idea of creating a dynamic banner was new.  So new, that nobody had the faintest idea how to do it. All we knew was that we wanted it done.

Working with a brilliant interactive agency, we worked through the details…

The general concept was to take a banner with common branding elements (the network logo, network colors, etc.) a tag line “Want to Know More? ” a basic “Click Here” call to action and then fill the middle with the most recent news headline from the site in big bold text.

The resulting banner ad text (without all of the surrounding branding) would then display something like this… (using more recent news as an example):

Huge landslide engulfs city streets in Baltimore
Want to know more?  
click here >>


Bruins condemn racist fan tweets
Want to know more? 
click here >>


U.S. Jobless rate falls to 6.3%
Want to know more? 
click here >>

It took months of development, testing, fixing, testing again and more development before we finally had a campaign ready to launch.  It also took time working with every advertiser we selected to train them how to actually display the banner (as most of them were used to simply placing those dancing animated gifs). But within 6 months of the start of the project, the ads started to display across various online sites, networks and more.

Suddenly, after months and months of work, we had ads that PROVED that we had up-to-the-minute news.  Ads that – within seconds of breaking news posting on the site – would automatically update across the various display networks.

Within a few weeks of starting the campaign, two of our competitors cancelled our advertising contract because our banners were scooping their news site.  We heard from users that they had been informed that something important had happened in the world from our banner ads.    Yes.  From our banner ads.

About 8 months later, the company was ranked as one of the top online news brands in the country, and – to this day – remains a leader in online news and information.

The lesson to be learned… although it’s important to capitalize on new trends to maximize your marketing efforts, it’s also important to let your imagination go wild every once in a while and – maybe – create the next trend.

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