Advertising & Responsive Web Design

So you've jumped on the responsive design bandwagon? Good for you. You've spent weeks coming up with an awesome content strategy for your site and you've spent countless iterations perfecting your users' experience across devices with different screen sizes and less-than-awesome download speeds. You've even taken ambient light into consideration (who knew?).  And now all you need to do is pay for it all so you've turned to the tried and true advertising industry only to realize that all of your careful planning has just hit a BIG hurtle. Online ads are not responsive. Online ad sales teams are not selling responsive ad packages. Online advertisers don't even know how to spell responsive...

Unfortunately these are some harsh truths but as anyone who has attempted to redesign their media sites responsively can tell you these are truths and they aren't changing any time soon.  

So what is a site to do?

My team and I have been struggling with this for months now and so far we have come up with three "solutions" that can be used today. None of these are great. Hell, none of these are good, but they are the best we have at the moment. If you have some other ideas, I'd love to hear 'em.

Option 1

Only sell 300x250 ads. This is the most simple solution and it will work for just about every layout on just about every device. It has the added bonus of not rocking the boat too much in terms of your advertisers and your ad sales team. You are still going to have some confusion when an ad is at the top of the page on some devices and the middle of the page on others, but this is the most easily explained change.

Option 2

Adaptive ad tags. You can simply adjust (or replace) your ad tags based on the current screen size or browser. One of the many problems with this include a lack of support for changing orientation (read "turning your iPhone sideways") or changing the size of your browser window. Suddenly, you can find yourself with a 728x90 ad that is too wide for the screen. If you use the DART or DFP modules for Drupal, you can install the Context Resolution module to show one Ad Block for one screen size and a different Ad Block for another. Hopefully this module will integrate with the Breakpoints module in the future.

Option 3

Work directly with your advertisers to create custom solutions. Very rare is the advertiser who will be willing to do this but if you can than this is a great option. The one thing to be sure of is that everyone on all sides is crystal clear about what the experience will be for different users, how the analytics or reporting will work and how the costs will be structured.

When Will This Get Better?

For years online advertisers have been paying for 300x250 pixels of real estate "above the fold" and been charged a premium for that position. Or they have gotten a huge discount on that 728x90 banner ad that is dumped at the bottom of a page - the 4am infomercial of the online ad world. So what is an advertiser to do when all of a sudden they are told that their 300x250 ad will actually need to morph into two or three or four different experiences depending on the current layout of the site. And what is an advertiser to do when all of a sudden they are told there is no such thing as "the fold" anymore. And what is the advertiser to do when suddenly all that data they have about who will see their ads and for how long and in what context suddenly gets clouded because the definition of "mobile" is no longer so cut and dry. And finally, what is an online advertiser to tell his CEO who doesn't have any idea what his company is paying zillions of dollars for anymore. "Don't worry boss, just trust me." That'll go well.

Of course this isn't to say that there aren't some huge advantages for the advertiser in having responsive ads just that they don't understand what responsive design is all about, what the practical ramifications are for creating the ads, and how this can be used to their advantage.

So when will this get better? Just in time for the next technological shift to happen and keep the online advertising industry well behind the curve.