The First Ever Banner Ad (& How it Performs Today)

This is a blog post about the first ever banner ad (from 1994), and the results it got when I set it live again. The post answers 2 interesting questions:

  1. What did the first ever banner ad look like?
  2. If you ran the same ad today, how would it perform?

What was the first ad?

The first ever banner ad ran in 1994, in Wired Magazine’s online equivalent (‘HotWired’). The ad was for AT&T, and got an enormous 44% clickthrough rate.

Here it was:


Quite a strange ad, eh? The birth of a multi-billion industry. It was designed by a man called Joe McCambley, who today works for a company he founded called The WonderFactory.

Since then, banner ads are more commonly called ‘display ads’, and the display advertising market is worth billions a year. Here are a few stats:

  • In the USA alone, $15 billion was spent last year on display ads. (Internet Retailer)
  • It’s a growing market: 64% of businesses increased their display ad spend this year. (Econsultancy)
  • The average clickthrough rate on display ads is roughly 1 in 1,000. (Smart Insights)
  • The particular format of the first ever banner ad performs even worse than that, roughly 1 in 2,500 (0.04%).

When it launched, the first ever banner ad got an enormous 44% clickthrough rate, no doubt due to the utter novelty of it at the time. Today, the average display ad has a clickthrough rate of just 0.11%. And, among the multitude of different formats today, the format of the first ever ad performs particularly poorly with a distressing 0.04% (The format is very roughly 468×60 pixels, which is the traditional ‘banner’ format).

How does the ad perform today?

Having stumbled across the first ever ad, I decided to test it to see how it would perform today. Would it beat the 0.04% benchmark of today’s typical ad of the same format?

Let’s take a quick look at it again before we look at the results:


  1. It’s totally generic. There’s no way to tell which brand it’s advertising.
  2. Most would consider it pretty ugly by today’s standards, but it is extremely contrasty – it would stand out on any background.
  3. Aside from the ugly factor, it’s quite a creative ad. It leads your eye around nicely without any animation. The copy is pretty good too: a question that applies to every viewer, and a clear next step.
  4. Finally, there’s an interesting thing that you don’t notice at first: There is some subliminal text – look carefully behind the coloured arrow and you see it repeats ‘YOU WILL. YOU WILL.’ over and over in very dark grey text.

The Results

I ran the ad for a week, on Google’s Display Network. To keep things fair I decided not to target the ad in any specific way that may influence its success. Instead I simply picked some arbitrary keywords & went with the standard settings.

I didn’t put a landing page together for the ad either. I just pointed it back to the homepage of one of my own sites (a sadly neglected page that hasn’t changed in years), and I told Google to target it against the keywords ‘ecommerce consultant‘.

Here’s the graph of ‘clicks’ & ‘clickthrough rate’ results over 7 days:


As you can see there, it started off slow & built up a little bit. If you look closely, you can also see that the CTR (‘clickthrough rate’) stayed consistently over 3%. I’ve picked out the highest performing day there in the little callout box. As you can see, it got a massive 1.10% clickthrough rate on the Saturday.

Here are the full overall results over the 7 days:


Results Summary:

  • I spent £14.54 (roughly $20).
  • The ad was viewed 10,140 times.
  • It was clicked 75 times.
  • As a result, it had a 0.74% clickthrough rate.

0.74% would not normally sound impressive, but it’s hugely impressive remembering that this format has an average clickthrough rate today of just 0.04%.

That means it performed 18.5x as well as (or put another way 17.5x better than) the average 0.04% clickthrough rate for this format. Or, in other words: Well done to the designer, Joe McCambley. Almost 20 years after he designed the ad, it performed 1,750% better than the average for its format.

Incredible, eh?

10 Replies to “The First Ever Banner Ad (& How it Performs Today)”

  1. Great insights Dan, this ad ticks a lot of design boxes and clearly stands the test of time. It’s amazing how over engineered ads have got. However, I wonder how ethical it is these days and if it would be seen as spammy by most users. Great test!

  2. Thanks for sharing your interesting test! I think it gets click-throughs because of the curiosity factor. People don’t know what it’s advertising and their curiosity gets the better of them. The question would be what value do the clicks really have? I bet most of the people that click through wouldn’t convert. You could certainly target keywords that are relevant to your business, but people still don’t know what they’re clicking on. A banner that said “click here for your free e-commerce site audit” might get a much lower CTR, but I bet the value of those clicks would be infinitely higher, because they’re pre-qualified customers.

  3. Nice find! Interesting results as well. I think it says more about novelty than it does about a design that stands the test of time. That banner was likely very successful for a number of years until more and more similar display ads began to compete for the same eyeballs. It likely works better than average today due to the fact that it has come full circle and once again stands apart from the norm. I would be interested to see the landing page it redirected to.

  4. Hello!

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    I just wanted to let you know we discussed your blog post on our show and would love if you could help get the word out to your readers!

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  5. 1994, I had no idea that was the first time. In 1999, my first job out of school included doing banner ads for AOL.

    We got to see national CTRs for all of our ads and the two other agencies that also did ads for AOL. We always got the highest CTRs, and that usually meant around .04%.

    AOL was way ahead of their time back then.

    PS: For whatever reason, the images in your post do not appear in Safari for iOS.

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