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Is the End Near for Display Ads?

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Spanfeller, who believes that sort of thinking devalues brand advertising, is a big advocate of better research. “As marketing dollars become more limited, we’ve got to figure this out,” he said.

Last week, comScore announced an effort to help figure out those issues. Its new Brand Metrix database pulls together data from 200 brand impact studies, aimed at helping better gauge ad effectiveness.

And many advertisers lately have turned to Microsoft’s Atlas. Earlier this year, the DoubleClick rival announced the launch of its Engagement Mapping product, which promises to help buyers to more holistically measure the impact of online ad campaigns, allocating credit to every single ad a user encounters, not just the ones they click on.

Young-Bean Song, senior director at Atlas Institute, said that since the economy went south, “we’ve been getting new subscribers every day. In this environment, people are paying a lot more attention to measuring the real impact of their campaigns.”

Besides properly crediting ads that are often undervalued, Song said that by next year, buyers would be able to utilize Engagement Mapping to improve the way digital media is actually bought and sold. The company plans to layer demographic data onto its existing data, shedding light not just on which ads are seen but on who actually sees them. “That’s the missing piece,” Song said.

The advancements most assuredly will be welcomed by the likes of Carrie Frolich, managing director, digital media at MEC Interaction, who believes display advertising’s greatest challenge is not the placements themselves -- or even faulty brand metrics -- but, rather, the medium’s fundamental economic model. “The industry is still focused on impressions as a currency,” she said. “People are not impressions.”

Instead, Frolich said she would like to see digital media bought and sold against an old-school metric: reach and frequency. “That’s still the foundation of advertising,” she said. “It’s not how many boxes we can flash at someone during one MySpace session.”

Shah agreed. “We have the ability, more than any other medium, to show who you reach, but we’ve sold placements on Web pages,” he said. “I would like to see a pricing model that is based on audience.”

Not everyone believes the display ad has outlived its use. Joanne Bradford, Yahoo!’s senior vp, U.S. revenue and market development, maintained that the Web is miles ahead of print and TV when it comes to proving its worth, which should help it win during a recession. “Just ‘impressions delivered’ is far better than what any other media has,” she said.

Meanwhile, Bradford offered a note of caution for those inclined to push more interruptive ad units, recalling what happened during the last ad recession: “I think that was called the pop-up.” And we all know how that ended.