Solving for Banner Blindness. Solve Media.

Posted on Sep 20, 2010 | 46 comments


I think we’ve all come to accept that “banner blindness” is a real phenomenon.  Sometimes you see solutions and immediately know they just make sense.  Solve Media is that.

In the early days of the Internet as an advertising medium the industry organized to create “standard ad units” for which most media companies would sell their inventory.  The standards were set by the IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau), which was founded in 1996.

Normalizing ad units obviously has a benefit.  But as we’ve all gotten used to the standard “banner” across the top of our screens or the “sky scraper” along the right-hand side we’ve trained ourselves not to look there any longer.  Clearly these advertisements make some impact but often the effects aren’t measurable (and even when you do see something it is often subconscious and may manifest itself later as a search query in Google and therefore harder to attribute to the banner).  Some companies are solving for this problem algorithmically.  More on that another day.

The industry is taking different approaches to the problem.  Many are starting to have Rich Internet Application advertisements (RIA) – with ads that sometimes takeover the entire screen without the users consent – classic interruption marketing.  I haven’t really looked at the stats as to the efficacy of these campaigns but it’s a clear response to banner blindness.

We all know media companies are suffering as CPMs (the amount they can charge per thousand visitors) are falling, available inventory is climbing, free content and blogs are proliferating, user attention is being divided with social networks and the core media business cash cows like classified ads have been disrupted by companies like CraigsList.

So the debate in the print media world is whether or not to insert a paywall between users and content.  Rupert Murdoch, owners of The Wall Street Journal, has famously come down on the side of charging for content.  Some of their content is free – much is paid.  The Financial Times allows you to view full articles but after you’ve viewed a certain number per month you have to pay a subscription.  The New York Times also flirted with the idea when they created “Times Select,” a paid portion of their site including their OpEds.  Like many users I just started reading the WaPo OpEds more.  They cancelled this program.

But is there a better way?  Enter “Solve Media” (there is a 101 second video that explains exactly what they do.  Do yourself a favor and watch it if for no other reason than to see how to craft a really tight set of relevant messages for your product that are told in human and buyer’s terms.  10 out of 10 for this video. Awesome.  I’m forwarding it to all of my portfolio companies). –> the company who made it is epipheo.

Solve Media offers a middle ground that they believe solves the problem.  It certainly resonates with me.  They allow content to stay free (Yah!) by having the user enter a small code before seeing the content much like you do with a “Captcha” screen to prove you’re a human.  I know, I know.  You prefer free AND no advertising.  But that is a world where journalists don’t get fed and therefore choose other careers.  I’m a huge believer in content owners being compensated.  I pay for lots of content and other content I expect to be free (but ad supported).

The beauty of Solve Media’s ad unit (you can see an example at the top of this post) is that the words you enter are not randomly generated and meaningless.  They’re an ad campaign.  You see the picture of dirty socks plus Tide equals clean socks and enter the words “It makes sense” to see the story you want.  As it turns out this drives up brand recall dramatically versus banner advertising (73% recall versus 16% for banners) and message recall from 3% to 41%.  Staggering numbers.

Am I an investor?  No.  I just love the concept and the founder of the company, Ari Jacoby.  We first met a couple of years ago and I’ve been impressed with his startup savvy and hustle ever since.  Even if he is a Redskins fan ;-)  He showed me this concept nearly a year ago and he’s managed to keep the company mostly under wraps while they perfected ad units, the data measurement and user experience with advertisers such as Toyota, Microsoft, Universal Pictures, Saatchi & Saatchi, Universal McCann.

And it seems some other people also think it’s pretty clever.  The very smart Chris Fralic of First Round Capital is on the board and the angel list is a who’s who of early stage investments.  They also raised VC from New Atlantic Ventures and AOL Ventures.

  • http://razvan.co Razvan Tirboaca

    They do what we do, but we do it in captchas at adcaptcher.com

    And yes, you're right. It's way more efficient than banners!

  • http://treadaway.typepad.com Chris Treadaway

    neat idea

  • Brian

    Very interesting concept, but I disagree that the video does a good job of explaining the business case for the product. Let me explain. I immediately went to the video and said to myself, “It's a branded captcha…..Big deal.” It wasn't till I read the rest of your message about making people verify a brand supporting messages to get something free where it really clicked with me. I think they whiff by having the video geared totally at advertisers instead of publishers. I would argue that publishers need the product more than advertisers.

  • http://shanacarp.com/essays ShanaC

    interesting, but I don't think it solves the problem that most ads on the internet are out of place. They are a form of content. Treat them with that level of respect (it's why social media advertising seems to be taking off, it's the recognition that real content is tasty, not real content isn't)

  • http://yountlabs.com Marshall Yount

    Definitely a neat idea.

    The value prop for the advertiser is outstanding.

    OTOH, I expect that the exact same CAPTCHA properties that make the advertising powerful would make it easier for spammers to crack.

    Advertisers loves clear (easy to read), consistent messaging (same answer every time).

    Spammers love easy to read images that always decode to the same CAPTCHA answer.

    If Solve Media can preserve the security of CAPTCHA, then they've got a win here. Otherwise I can't see it.

  • http://razvan.co Razvan Tirboaca

    I don't know about Solve Media, but we've developed the technical solution for keeping the images clear and be secure in the same time. So it's achievable.

    Another thing that we are doing is to ask users a question instead of typing the whole text. This is 100% secure for robots, we're still thinking about the Indians :)

  • Nikki

    Great idea. Huge problem though.

    Solve Media doesn't explain why a Site Owner should use the product. If if it's just increased ad revenue, how much?

  • http://www.fiftybyfifty.com/lifeoffarhan/ Farhan Lalji

    Really good idea. Love the fact that the best ideas are the simplest solutions. Think these type of solutions are much better than targeting etc, as the ads just get lost in the content.

    Small plug – We're trying a simple sponsorship solution for smaller publishers at http://www.adavengers.com – idea is that an adnetwork on a blog like this one would serve a lot of junk ads. But if we had a great ad for a start up focussed law firm that works internationally that might work well for you as a publisher, the law firm as an advertiser and us as a matchmaking start up.

  • http://hdemott.wordpress.com Harry DeMott

    that is cool.

    Of course if the CEO is a Redskins fan – it is possible that he has hung himself after that utter and total collapse yesterday – so I might check in with him to see how he's holding up.

    On a more serious note – as a consumer – anything that makes me jump through any sort of hoop (and captcha's are among the worst offenders) is going to be met with severe resistance. I'd rather watch a pre roll.

  • http://twitter.com/IBAssociate Entreprenuer TechIB

    Reminds me of a Company I didn't invest in about four years ago – I thought they were called “I Love Media” but can't seem to find them. They made you watch a video advertisement to get access to content you otherwise would have to pay for.

    I really like the idea – we all know the big/old publishers move slow, will be interesting to see how they get publishers to adopt.

  • http://yountlabs.com Marshall Yount

    I suppose there are two publisher paths here.

    (1) small, independent publishers like blog operators that don't really provide significant services based on user accounts. If a spammer defeats at CAPTCHA on my blog, it's relatively easy to clean up the spam comments.
    (2) big players such as Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Twitter — for these guys the spam problem is more difficult to solve in every way. It's impossible to monitor every input vector with 10k+ new accounts per day, and when a spammer creates a fake account they can use it for much more nefarious purposes.

    I think Solve Media and adcaptcher could be great fits for (1) where the stakes are low, but poor fits for (2) where the stakes are high.

  • http://twitter.com/IBAssociate Entreprenuer TechIB

    Brian – the more time on spend on Solve Media's site, the more I think your initial understanding of a branded captcha is what they're offering – although I like what Mark outlined, making a user type in a branded captcha just to have access to the content would seem smart, it just doesn't appear that's what they're doing…yet (from video or rest of site)

  • http://twitter.com/hamutalm Hamutal Meridor

    Haven't heard such a creative idea in this field in a while!
    However, their video is a bit misleading. Comparing how long it takes us to solve a captcha with these ads is only relevant if they'll be used solely where captchas are used today, or at the same amount. For some reason I have a feeling these ads will be everywhere and we'll end up spending way more time typing in. Even – or perhaps especially – if they are mad men copies.
    Don't know about you but I'd rather pay for my content than have to type in several of these brain-washers a day.

  • http://twitter.com/gulpthis Gulp Media

    This is pretty much what I do. The captcha intrusion is interesting, but does it really measure the demand side of the equation and am I really engaged at that point?

    I provide a content consumption solution that dynamically determines the “Fair Market Value” of digital content through price discovery. Oversimplified, I ask users to volunteer their personal data, including interests, opinions, attitudes and values, while giving users complete control of it, not unlike a data bank described today by Kashmir Hill of Forbes. This allows marketers to transparently engage consumers and reward them for their marketing value. The audience then chooses if they want a “performance” free, in an ad-supported format or for a pay-per-performance fee, devoid of advertising.

    This keeps all of the constituents happy; the advertisers, the audience and the artists (publishers). It also satisfies the question of “Consumers are willing to pay for some content, but not all. But which content and how much?

  • http://twitter.com/gulpthis Gulp Media

    This is pretty much what I do. The captcha intrusion is interesting, but does it really measure the demand side of the equation and am I really engaged at that point?

    I provide a content consumption solution that dynamically determines the “Fair Market Value” of digital content through price discovery. Over simplified I ask users to volunteer their personal data, including interests, opinions, attitudes and values, while giving users complete control of it, not unlike a data bank described today by Kashmir Hill of Forbes. This allows marketers to transparently engage consumers and reward them for their marketing value. The audience then chooses if they want a performance free, in an ad-supported format or for a pay-per-performance fee, devoid of advertising.

    This keeps all of the constituents happy, the advertisers, the audience and the artists (publishers). It also satisfies “Consumers are willing to pay for some content, but not all. But which content and how much?

  • John Crestani

    'The best ads dont look like ads' – david ogilvy. As an internet advertiser I can testify firsthand that making ads look closer to the editorial they appear within, whether by using the same colors, font, similar logos etc, makes a world of difference in the CTR.

    This is why advertorial landing pages for many products work. This is why the infomercials try to look as much like real news programs or tv shows as possible (until FTC regulations came in)

    I love the video, who made that? Another company who makes real cool videos but using cutouts is Common Craft [ http://www.commoncraft.com/ ].

  • John Crestani

    My father continues to proclaim how ads will be more interactive in the future….this is definitely a step in that direction

  • Svendahl

    Sounds very much like what vidoop was trying to do:
    http://techcrunch.com/2007/12/03/vidoop-turns-openid-into-pictures-that-pay/

    Significant funding and tech, but it never got enough traction to go anywhere. Cautionary tale.

  • http://twitter.com/albertobrizio Alberto Brizio

    Interesting. I think going forward they (or their competitors) should look into making the user interact more with the product rather than just typing a sentence. For instance, something like: your task is to drop the dirty socks into the washing machine –not the microwave oven or the TV– then add a cup of Tide, but careful about the ghost-ains roaming around. This has the advantage that it's likely easier for the user on a mobile or any touchscreen-type device and I believe (no stats to support this though) that it conveys the message in a more powerful fashion (see also game mechanics).

  • Kylepearson

    Its a cool idea, but we'll see if it gains traction as other users have pointed out. I like the use of phrasing in the ads.

  • http://influads.com/ damiansen

    I must say that i believe this idea is not that good, since it's gaining performance at the cost of intrusion and harder user experience.

    The idea of replacing the captcha, associating a brand's tagline to the captcha process is interesting but a banner that is bigger than the whole form itself really adds a lot of clutter to the user experience IMHO

  • http://influads.com/ damiansen

    but that does look like an ad.

  • alexanderjarvis

    I have to say that, creatively, this is inspired. I’m annoyed I didn’t make the link!
    I am concerned that this is going to be the equivalent of an interstitial to read content (or the rest of an article). I have an innate aversion to being made to do something. I wouldn’t mind doing the adCaptcher when registering or downloading a file, but to read articles on the net…sorry that would make me avoid the site on principle.
    If applied creatively, and if installing the adCaptcher is as easy as adwords, I can very easily see people across the net installing this; why bother with the usual one when you can turn a buck here? I presume the CPC will be decent.

  • Alan White

    This idea may sound beautiful to publishers and advertisers, but the question is whether readers will accept it. The problem is that it disrupts the process of accessing content and thus is yet another form of interruption-based marketing. Also, in typing the slogan, the reader is forced to admit they cannot ignore the message, which denies them the feeling of having a choice — to view or to ignore — normally associated with most other forms of advertising. I would quickly learn to avoid sites with these Captcha-style ads wherever possible. Nice creative attempt by Solve Media, though. I don't think we've seen the last of clever new methods for monetizing content on the web.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks for the comments. Ah, maybe I had access to future plans versus current focus ;-) But the content gateway is what excited me the most.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Most ads are out of place. Sure. As a 'paywall alternative' to accessing content I think it could be really powerful

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    They've run more than a year of testing so I'm guessing they've cracked some of this.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yeah, as Brian said above, I think they need some messaging for content owners and not just advertisers.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Simple, yet deceptively simple. It looks like anybody could do it, but in reality they ran a year of testing on: messaging, tech implementation, conversion tracking, etc.

    re: Ad Avengers – read the website copy. Good luck launching.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    re: Redskins – I'm OK with Redskins fans having a bit of pain ;-)

    re: jumping through a hoop – I'm with ya. But if it were that versus paying I bet a large base of users would be receptive.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yeah, true that big media moves slow. If I understand correctly they got a number of large players to launch with.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    The beauty is that there are all sorts of user segments. I'm OK with paying. Lots of people aren't. In order for journalism to survive media sites need to find innovative ways to earn revenue. I think this is a good approach to solving everybody's problems.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I know that people don't really like ads. But they are a way of allowing people to consume content without paying. But when CPMs fall to a point where media sites can't earn enough money that's a problem. CPMs fall due to problems with efficacy. I think this is a good middle ground. And if you don't want the ads, it would be nice if you had a way to pay for the content. I know I would – for the right websites.

  • http://hdemott.wordpress.com Harry DeMott

    Agreed.

    However, marketers have to be careful not to overdue it. Yes I might

    remember their message and their brand – but I might also remember that I

    was forced to type it in every day to watch a message and I grow to hate

    them.

    Marketing is one thing – forced marketing is another.

    Everyone hates captchas, but they are faceless and soulless.

    Satellite radio shows that people will pay to avoid commercial messages –

    I';m not saying everyone will – but I'd hate to be the marketer who over

    saturated a market forcing people to type in “Tide Cleans Better” after

    every 2 youtube videos.

  • PeterisP

    If it is as said above – that CAPTCHA text is one of a few slogans chosen by the advertiser; then forget about spammers – I'd expect the workaround to be built into next version of AdBlock browser plugins.

    (Offtopic philosophical interlude – if you see ads in your TV shows, web or radio, then you're doing it wrong; it's not worth to allow your mind to be spammed when technology can get rid of it)

  • http://twitter.com/mattamyers Matthew A Myers

    Easy target for spammer bots. I don't see this working in the long-term, unless users don't mind higher spam getting through. Would love them to prove me wrong.

  • http://twitter.com/mattamyers Matthew A Myers

    They won't end up everywhere. That won't happen. User behaviour will dictate what's acceptable and what's not acceptable.

  • Vincent van der Lubbe

    On a related note: looks like ad driven monetization of the consisteny/commitment principle from Cialdini's classic (Influence. The Power of Persuasion). Cialdini describes as one particular vivid example how the Chinese used the technique of eliciting written statements of US Prisoners of War in the Korean War to incrementally change the POW's beliefs and “turn them around”.

  • Joelyoung7

    Love the idea — hat's off to Solve Media. But what really has me excited is this: As someone with an incongruent set of interests, I don't want to subscribe via paywall to all of the sources which might occasionally have an article I want to read. Solve's solution seems to fix this for me. I'd much rather type in a pitch line than sit through a 30 second video for a product I have no interest in. And that's just it. I don't sit through the video. I do something — anything — else for 30 seconds.

    As I type this, I still see the dirty sock + Tide = clean sock in my mind.

    Well done.

  • jessB

    I hate captchas because i can only figure it out 25% of the time. I am constantly refreshing it until I get one i can actually read the first time. If all i have to do is type in “tide cleans socks” to access content, it's a low hoop to jump through.

  • Trevor Austin

    This is why publishers were so excited about the iPad, right? So that seamless integration with the Apple music store, which already has your credit card info and can do 1-click purchases, would make micropayments frictionless. Presumably the folks working on Facebook Credits have similar aspirations.

    Advertising captchas, especially onse where I have to parrot back the brand message, would make my blood boil. But I'd be clicking on 'Pay $.19 To Read the Rest” links all day long.

  • http://twitter.com/IBAssociate Entreprenuer TechIB

    They did, both their list of advertisers and publishers was impressive.

    I lost touch with the Company – not sure if Publishers didn't see the results they wanted or if business model just wasn't viable.

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com/ Mark Essel

    While I'm not excited about interruption ads, I can see why this form of brand reinforcement is attractive to businesses. I like to think of ads a little differently (related to Shana's comment).

    Our first web application project at Victus Media was a social context targeting tool. It showed text links to amazon products, which we upgraded to flash carousel animations relevant to an authenticated visitor's twitter stream. I'd say it recommended about 50% interesting products to me on any given visit, with a few in the spooky bulls eye range (i.e. a CD I just mentioned a song from). As you can imagine not many people wanted to opt into an advertising widget, so the functionality was really only applicable to sites where users were already logged in (Twitter, Seesmic, Tweetdeck, or any oauth'd service) and I wasn't able to gain their attention as a first time founder with no rep.

    What I find most surprising about advertising, is that it's not more like skateboarding.

    You see I skateboarded for years from age 11-16. At my best I could ollie 4 boards interleaved, and my greatest trick was a kickflip over a concrete lip followed by a four foot drop. I kept falling and hurting myself repeatedly. It probably took 50-60 attempts before I got it right. That trick broke my board, hurt my knees, shins, and shoulders, but I nailed it and road away smoothly. That's just the way you learned tough tricks as a kid.

    But there was something cool about the industry, the greatest skateboarders were sponsored. All the pros represented companies and had boards, stickers, and clothing which represented the sponsor. The companies were all super tuned to the interest of skateboarders. When big wheels and wickedly curved boards were in style, the companies created them. When small wheels, and tiny boards were fashionable, the companies supplied them. The model was great, we all loved the companies and our favorite pros got to skate full time.

    Why can't sites become sponsored by companies who really care about the sites visitors and community? Kinda like Robert Scoble's relationship with Rackspace.

  • rikardkjellberg

    I read the post, saw the video and read Brian's comment before I arrived at the “I get it” moment. I like the idea of using CAPTCHA for branded messaging but I couldn't see enough transaction volume in this for it to be beneficial to the publisher. I got the advertiser benefit immediately. However, if you use it as a gate to the free content, I think it is fantastic. In fact, it could transform the web as we know it. The “free” can remain but we (i.e., the users) have to at least engage in a small activity for access. This is far better than having to endure a 15-30 seconds promotion and here's why. You know how you sometimes sit in traffic and it isn't moving. Taking a detour becomes very attractive even when you know that it will not really get you there any faster. The reason it is attractive is because you are engaged in some activity, things are at least moving forward. The feeling is the same here. Rather than sitting still, I am producing something which is less stressful than sitting through something. In the process I am using multiple senses which improves my ability to recall it later. Brilliant!

  • Andrew Bellay

    Awesome video. This is really an interesting idea.

  • UserFreedom

    Resistance is inevitable.

    As a programmer, I will write an app that detects these, fills them in automatically, and lets the user avoid them completely. They will pay ME for this app, and advertisers will get invalid stats.

    You will not win the war for domination of user's minds by intruding on their time and interrupting their tasks.