Remaking Advertising As Conversation

Doc Searls famously remarked that “markets are conversations.” It seems to me that advertising ought to be a conversation as well. Only it’s normally a conversation with a bore (or a drunk) at a cocktail party, someone who backs you into a corner, talks incessantly about himself, and laughs too loud at his own jokes.

When I first imagined web advertising back in 1993, I had this idea that advertising content could be made much more useful online. Absent the limits of the 60-second spot or the high-cost magazine page, companies could provide rich, useful information about their products. And despite the intrusion of the annoying appurtenances of traditional advertising (banners, pop-ups, skyscrapers — in short, the drunk referred to above), much of the vision has come true. Case in point:, O’Reilly’s site devoted to advertising our company and our products, gets almost as much traffic as, our collection of online content sites. According to our HitBox stats, the top catalog page last month, for the book Firefox Hacks, had an average of 6303 daily visitors, who spent an average of 2 minutes and 48 seconds on the page. That’s advertising as content.

Given that advertisers now have the ability to give customers all the information they need to make informed purchase decisions, why did the internet end up recreating the annoyances of traditional advertising? Two words: surface area. Like the alveoli in our lungs, banner ads, popups and the like exist to create more surface area where customers and products can interact — in short, have a conversation. Given that premise, though, you'd think that these ads would do a better job of starting the conversation when they first appear, rather than just trying to get you to click through by means of some bright color, a few words, or a picture.


I’ve been giving this subject a lot more thought lately because Dale Dougherty, who’s run the O’Reilly Network from its inception, has moved over full time to Make, the new magazine he launched for us. I’m taking a more active hand in managing the network while we look for a new general manager.

One of the first questions I asked the team was “how can we make our advertising more useful?” I always put myself in the user’s shoes, and I know that I rarely, if ever, click through any of the traditional types of web advertising. If ads aren’t useful to users, they will get low response rates, so they aren’t useful to advertisers either.

Thinking back, I’ve probably clicked through only one or two banner ads in the nearly twelve years I’ve been on the web, other than to check out some of the advertising on our own sites. However, I’ve clicked uncounted times on the contextual advertising that comes up in the course of a Google search, even though that form of advertising has been around for a much shorter time. So learning from search engine advertising seemed to me to be a good place to start thinking about ad usability.

Some of what makes search engine advertising work so well is the relevancy that is intrinsic to search. But another part, I believe, is the transparency of the ads. We’re given a preview of what’s on the other side of the link, much as we are for the search results themselves. What’s more, there’s almost always an offer. This style of advertising draws far more from the tradition of direct-response advertising than it does from traditional display or image advertising.

As it turns out, I was a bit behind the curve. While the intrusive, low-content popup, banner, or skyscraper is still a favorite of many ad agencies, we’re seeing a lot of more interesting formats.
Since I last stopped paying attention to web advertising, there’s been a trend in display ads (often using Flash, but sometimes DHTML) to operate more as a conversation starter as well. Let’s start by looking at the following old-style image ad (which appeared in a story on

A traditional display ad

Now look at these transitional ads (taken from the O’Reilly Network and from, which use much the same format, but include an actual direct-response offer:

Display Ads with a Direct Response Component

Now contrast with this collection of new-style ads from the O’Reilly Network site, from the oreillynet hub, and from Forbes:

A Collection of Direct Response Ads

These ads draw heavily from the direct-response tradition (though you can see that Oracle had to work in a bit of image advertising as well.) Like search engine ads, they give you some context that lets you decide whether you want to click through or not.

Flash, DHTML and Ajax add more options. I was intrigued by this ad on CNet, which looks like a traditional ad.

Ad that appeared on CNet

When you mouse over it, though, the interactive offer panel drops down.

CNet ad, expanded version

I think a lot more interesting things could be done with this kind of ad behavior. One of the ideas I kicked around with the oreillynet team was the idea of providing editorial and user feedback on ads as a way of making them more effective. The general feeling was that this wouldn’t go over too well with the ad agencies. So I suggested a model in which we use Ajax, or maybe even Greasemonkey-style rewriting to add tooltips containing color commentary, user reviews, and so forth, on our ads. We’d probably piss off the ad agencies and some of the clients, but if we could make the ads more useful, that would be a big win, and in the end, one might hope that everyone would get over any bruised egos from the process. What do you think?

Speaking of reader feedback, I was intrigued to see a feedback link below an ad on Yahoo:

Ad Feedback Link on Yahoo Ad

But I was disappointed by the fairly traditional survey I found on the other side of the feedback link. I’d love to explore ways to get more feedback on oreillynet ads, but would love to do it in a way that got a real conversation started. Ideas welcome.

Overall, I’d say that the web advertising world is moving in an interesting direction. I’m betting that as the effectiveness of this newer style of direct-response advertising works its way into the brains of ad agencies, we’ll see less and less focus on the large, colorful popup, and more of the conversational “sponsored links” variety intermixed with editorial. The story’s far from over. I believe that there’s a real opportunity to remix advertising with user contributed content and conversation in order to make it more effective.