Will Price is CEO of Widgetbox, which offers media-rich ads and widgets to increase online engagement.

Brand marketers spend $20 billion a year on display advertising. The goal? Drive brand recall and purchase intent. The medium? Pictures, text, and call-to-action buttons.

The first banner ad, for AT&T as seen below, hit the web in 1994:


The web has changed a lot since 1994, growing exponentially richer via broadband, APIs, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, but, in an odd disconnect, display ads stayed virtually unchanged over the years. Until recently, that is.

We’re now seeing brands, agencies, and technology vendors working hard to remedy the failings of the display industry, enabling advertisers to invest in ad units that result in deeper engagement experiences by embedding the Web’s richness and social interactivity within ads themselves.

Three specific developments are finally allowing brands to run ads that reflect the best of today’s web and the brand’s content investments:

1. The Real-Time Web: The rise of the real-time Web has impacted our day-to-day lives as well as the way business is conducted. Because of these live conversations, companies are no longer investing in “snap shots” of their brand, but rather in two-way conversations with their target audience. This requires a shift in regarding creative as something that is fixed for a one-time campaign, to something that is fluid, real-time and responsive. This is achieved by embedding these social elements – videos, Twitter feeds, surveys, blog posts, games – directly in the ad itself.

2. The Dynamic Ad Experience: Each time an ad loads, it can be programmed and adjusted based on observed behavior over the life of a campaign and consumers’ interaction with the unit, information known about a consumer, and other variables. In this way, ads become a set of programmable, adjustable configuration options that marketers can adjust in real-time based on performance, retargeting and analytic optimizations.

3. New Means for Measurement: There is also a shift in the conversation around what determines the success of an ad or entire campaign. While click-through rates have been regarded as the Holy Grail in gauging the success of display ad campaigns, engagement levels and time spent interacting with an ad now promise metrics that are richer, deeper and far more tangible assessments.

With all this change occurring, the Web’s leading publishers and brands are racing to define new ad formats that combine the best of the brand, publisher, and social content. This means moving from selling media and audience to selling differentiated marketing solutions.

My own company, Widgetbox, recently partnered with tech publisher IDG, for example, to develop IDG’s Nanosite Ad Unit, which leverages existing content from IDG sites and social content from the Web to provide readers with a content-rich ad experience. The Nanosite allows readers to access additional information within the ad unit so that they never have to leave the webpage they are on. In this way, advertisers can provide interactive experiences for readers from the Nanosite through whitepapers, videos, real-time content updates, social media and lead-generation forms all within the unit.

Launched in September, AOL’s Project Devil is another example of the display ad evolution. This new format offers a large ad space segmented into interactive panels that include video, slideshows, quizzes, polls, text messaging and other options, allowing advertisers to customize different streams of functionality within one interactive interface. With launch partners including companies such as, Lexus, Spring, and Macy’s (pictured), it’s clear that AOL has tapped into an important market need. AOL recently acquired Pictela to scale the roll out of Project Devil.

On the technological innovation side, Spongecell is another company providing publishers and advertisers with the tools and strategy to reach customers on a deeper level (that Volvo ad up top is from Spongecell). Big believers in shifting the conversation from clicks to actual engagement, Spongecell is helping brands such as Office Depot, Whole Foods and Delta Airlines make this a reality.

These are just a few examples of the many ways publishers are getting creative when it comes to giving readers the content they want in new ways. And for advertisers, these formats enable deeper reader engagement with the ad itself, while giving readers an easy way to access and interact with additional content without navigating away from the current webpage. In acknowledging the shift from episodic to real-time banner ad marketing and the reality that a “perfect” creative is in fact evolutionary, we are learning to look beyond the traditional display ad and unlocking the value that today’s online experience can lend to ad campaigns.