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Frequency, Not Format

  |  August 21, 2002   |  Comments

Recent debate about consumer distaste for pop-ups skirts the real issue.

Are pop-ups evil?

With iVillage's announcement that pop-ups will largely disappear from its site and EarthLink's boast that it will supply software to banish them, pop-ups are the hot media issue of the summer.

I have fielded numerous calls from reporters about the issue in the last week -- as business newsletters and a newspaper in St. Paul, MN, cover the latest hot topic. The writers ask the same fundamental questions: Is there a consumer backlash against pop-ups? Is the industry turning against them? Is this another sign that advertising doesn't work on the Internet?

The writers call me because of my company's Ad Reaction Study, published last year. The study found that among Internet users:

  • Consumers feel advertising is necessary to keep sites free, even if ads are distracting. In fact, 85 percent of respondents said that ads were necessary even if they distracted them from what they were doing.

  • In terms of desirability, pop-ups are on par with other types of advertising. On average, respondents said that pop-ups were about as desirable as TV advertising and a lot more desirable then telemarketing.

  • Most people think that pop-ups are appropriate, as long as the number is limited. Three pop-ups per hour is the average number people thought appropriate.

What does this research tell us? That the debate over pop-ups should be about frequency, not format. Most people understand that advertising is necessary to support the content they enjoy. They just don't want to be deluged with it.

Which brings us to one of the fundamental issues facing online advertising today: finding a balance. Balancing the needs of advertisers and those of users is like managing an ecosystem. When the environment gets out of balance, both sides suffer.

The over-proliferation of pop-up advertisements is a result of both economic hardship and operational failure. Many sites, struggling to survive, cannot turn down pop-up ad campaigns. And without operational controls to regulate them, users can feel bombarded, particularly when surfing through a number of different sites.

Software such as Gator, which serves pop-up ads on Web sites without publisher involvement (or profit), makes things worse. Even sites such as Google, whose value proposition is based on speed and a clean experience, cannot control its user experience when other entities pop ads on its site.

The Web does not have a monopoly on intrusive advertising. But because the medium is evolving, we have yet to find a balance that will serve the needs of both advertisers and users.

Most people understand that advertising is necessary to support the sites they like to visit. The issue is not pop-ups. It's getting them under control.


Jeffrey Graham

Jeffrey Graham is vice president of client development at Dynamic Logic, a company he joined in January of 2001. Dynamic Logic specializes in measuring the branding effectiveness of online marketing. Jeffrey has served as research director at two online advertising agencies, Blue Marble and NOVO, and has worked with clients such as General Motors, Procter & Gamble, and Continental Airlines. He has taught Internet Research at New York University and has a Masters degree in the subject.

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