Summary:

A year after AOL (NYSE: AOL) first began promoting its “premium” Project Devil ads to much hype and fanfare, the company has succeeded in si…

Greg Rogers, AOL Pictela

A year after AOL (NYSE: AOL) first began promoting its “premium” Project Devil ads to much hype and fanfare, the company has succeeded in signing up media partners like Hearst interested in running it. The problem has been in finding advertisers who want to buy it.

Now the company hopes to rectify that situation by making it easier to run e-commerce campaigns within the Project Devil units. AOL plans to do a major outreach to ad agencies starting today, getting ahead of next month’s Advertising Week in New York.

Until now, if a marketer wants to attract consumers to conduct an e-commerce transaction through an ad, they have to get that user to click the display unit and send them back to the site. Given that even the most avid web shoppers have little appetite to have their experience completely interrupted to buy some shoes, clickthrough rates on such ads tends to be few and far between — and they’re strictly the province of cheap, anti-premium direct response ads.

AOL Pictela head Greg Rogers told paidContent that the big idea here is a dual marriage between direct response and premium branding, content and advertising. One Project Devil ad can contain a company’s entire catalog, and because it’s built like a mobile app that lays over the main content page that brought the user in the first place, the user never has to leave the main page to do some shopping or check out a marketer’s video.

“The way it works, the size of the ad determines how many apps can be placed within in it,” Rogers said,; the main Project Devil ad can support 22 apps. “And then those apps are chosen by the brand marketers based on what they have, whether it’s videos demonstrating their product or other content related to brand promotion. There are about 500 ad tech firms out there building apps for marketers. So the number of apps will grow dramatically over the next year.”

For AOL and other purveyors of large scale ad units like Project Devil’s formats, it can get pretty expensive to customize an ad for each app. Instead, Project Devil’s “Product Showcase” retail app is meant to do everything within the ad unit, thereby promising more engagement with marketers’ messages and possibly delivering some actual sales.

Rogers expects clothing retailers and automakers — who especially like showing off 360 degree views of their new models — to embrace the new Product Showcase app features.

There’s also a second, smaller goal here. In explaining Project Devil’s “story,” most advertisers and media observers tend to focus on the large 300×1050 canvas that the ad format had been known for. But Rogers was quick to note that those large ads aren’t for every site and every marketer. Project Devil offers eight different sizes of ad format, not all of them jumbo. By emphasizing the variety, AOL hopes to appeal to a wider variety, since the problem now is not merely about offering a contrast to static banner ads that tended to hang at the top of a web page.

Aside from trying to shore up display ad spending at the company in general — AOL warned during last month’s earnings call that Q3 trends were a little down — the company also has some negative perception problems lately.

Even without the Techcrunch/Michael Arrington contretemps, there is a feeling that display ad dollars are swinging more towards Facebook and Google (NSDQ: GOOG) and away from the portals like AOL and Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO).

In a sign of scaled down ambitions, on Tuesday, CEO Tim Armstrong told the audience at Goldman Sachs’ tech conference that the company’s goal is to be the “number three player” in display, Forbes reported.

As eMarketer’s latest forecast for the display market, aiming for number three still sounds ambitious for AOL, which has been finally been able to ride the wave of the online ad space’s growth in recent months.

The overall display marketplace in the U.S. is expected to be $12.33 million this year and $14.82 million the next. Facebook will have a 16.3 percent share of the U.S. display market this year, followed by Yahoo at 13.1 percent, Google at 9.3 percent, MSN at 4.9 percent, with AOL last in that group at 4.2 percent.

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