How to Create a “Smart Ad”

Almost everyone agrees: digital editions are beginning to transcend the “flip book” metaphor. Major players are beginning to create products that are not just digital facsimiles: adding true interactivity while preserving the intrinsic value of the well-designed page. With all the hyperbole surrounding the iPad — and the next generation of e‑readable media in general — publishers and developers are beginning to decide what their new medium may look like.

For editorial content, inserting videos, Flash animations and data mashups usually top the list of cross-media additions to traditional text and graphics. This creates a potential for true interactive engagement with the reader — at a price. The business case for creating compelling, integrated cross-media content is far from easy or straightforward. We can expect to see plenty of ill-conceived junk as content creators struggle with multi-channel stories.

For e-reader ads, the challenge is even greater. A good “e-Ad” must be a creative, well-designed blend of text, illustration, video and sound. It must also relate well to its editorial context — AND it must generate a positive, measurable response, without being overly intrusive. To manually create such rich, multi-faceted advertising will be costly. If history is any guide, we can expect to see a proliferation of pushy, intrusive ads that will be largely ignored and resented.

So, as the new generation of e-readers emerges, how can advertisers distinguish their electronic offerings from the expected wave of obnoxious, pop-up-like ads (without going broke)? To begin with, we must abandon the mindset that a “digital ad” for magazines or newspapers is just a regular ad that moves or makes noises. We’ve had those for years; they’re known as TV spots. E-readers have indeed become a new screen for televised media, but their real advertising strength is not visual candy, but their ability to find and use data.

Think about it. E-readers, including the iPad, are networked computing devices, with potential access to vast amounts of data of all types, both public and intensely private. A well-designed (and yes, visually appealing) e-Ad should ultimately be useful in gathering specific data. Based on unique user requests, it should present the reader with a range of purchase decisions that he or she actually requested. Editorial context is the key.

For example, a travel magazine article could have e-Ads (i.e., applications) that let the reader customize or vary the route, identify places to stay or buy stuff, and even download GPS instructions. The publisher or agency would have to sell the ad to a diverse range of advertisers, and live with the idea that non-advertisers may receive some benefit. The point is that the reader’s access to data is the primary attraction — upon which commercial value can be built.

Another necessary change may be the abolition of traditional media distinctions. E-Ads may be well suited to the medium we think of as “books” — not just that of “magazines” or “newspapers.” The potential to locate context appropriate data — from lists of resources to social media connections to just about anything else — should make us think of the financial potential of these things we presently call “ads.” Whatever we end up calling this medium for informed commerce, the art and science of creating these innovations will be the next big thing.

John Parsons ( is an independent analyst and consultant, currently working on a new in-depth study, Going Digital: Emerging Trends in Digital Magazine and Newspaper Publishing. He is the former Editorial Director of The Seybold Report.


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