Ad Policies or Ad Hoc?

In broadcasting, it’s called “Standards and Practices.” In publishing, “Advertising Guidelines.” In interactive, we don’t have a name for it.

While the media were heralding iVillage’s recent decision to ban pop-ups as an interactive advertising breakthrough, I was scratching my head. Since when do publishers get all that ink just for doing their job? Pared down to its essence, a publisher’s job is keeping the audience happy and receptive to advertisers’ messages. When ads are effective, advertisers are happy. Publishers make more money.

An iVillage survey found 92.5 percent of its users thought pop-ups were the most irritating thing about the Web and the ads damaged advertisers’ brands. Similarly, an AOL study recently found user satisfaction increased in inverse proportion to the number of pop-ups visitors saw. This prompted the company to cut back on the format. AOL will consider the issue as it develops the next version of its client software.

Logical decisions — not brain surgery. Scan software download sites, and you’ll see pop-up killers on every most-downloaded list (at times, as many as 9 of the 10 top-ranked freeware apps are some type of ad-killer).

iVillage and AOL’s decisions to nix (or reduce) usage of an ad format calls a larger issue into question: Have online publishers drafted formal policies or guidelines related to user experience?

With precious few exceptions (most notably The New York Times), nope.

Here’s a broadcast-oriented view of why traditional advertisers have long adhered to formal policies governing advertising (as posted on The Museum of Broadcast Communications):

Standards and Practices’ primary purpose has always been to maintain the networks’ most precious asset, its audience-in-being — the delivery of a significant share of television households, hour after hour, to the advertising community. Secondary purposes… included protecting the networks’ images as responsible and responsive institutions, as sources of reliable information and satisfying entertainment for the entire family, and even as precious national resources…. It must also be credited for making a commercially supported national system possible.

Google “advertising guidelines” or “standards and practices” with “interactive” or “Internet” tossed in. You’ll link again and again to the IAB’s ad format standards — plenty of specs, nothing about users.

I visited online publishers’ sites systematically (the top five in each major category) looking for ad guidelines or policies going beyond tech capabilities. I quickly learned no term describes what I was looking for. User experience issues, when present in media kits at all, are lumped under technical specifications, creative considerations, or general guidelines — if they’re anywhere at all.

This would indicate publishers aren’t giving user experience much thought.

iVillage (along with the other top women/family/health sites) has no published ad guidelines, nor could a spokesperson say if the company actually has an ad policy, pop-up edict excepted. That’s not unusual. Not one of a half dozen top publishers I phoned could answer the question, “Do you have advertising policies or guidelines related to user experience?”

Some attempted to find out and stillcame up with, “I don’t know.” (Translation: “I know you’re writing about this, and I don’t dare say no.”)

That’s not how it works in traditional ad-supported media. I don’t question iVillage’s decision. But an industrywide lack of policies and guidelines indicates publishers’ approach to advertisers and users is ad hoc and reactive. Sure, it’s been tough out there. Yes, this industry and its technologies are new, constantly changing, and in many ways much more complex than other media. Still, by now, we should have some rules.

There are and always will be instances in which publishers must make judgment calls. But a format’s a format.

Too few publishers have made up their minds about old-hat stuff: frequency caps, looping limits, user-initiated audio and streaming content, rotation, intrusion or interruption limits, disabling browser “back” buttons, or mouseover rules. The list is endless, yet the majority of leading publishers have guidelines for only one or two of these issues — if any at all.

Michael Zimbalist, head of the Online Publishers Association (OPA) told me though OPA’s mission statement mandates separation of editorial and ad content, it was decided to leave the user experience issues alone for the time being. “We discussed earlier this year whether we’d recommend guidelines or certain advertising formats,” he told me, “It’s too soon to say how this should be done. This has been an amazing year for experimentation with formats. We didn’t want to inhibit [that] or mainstream advertisers coming online. We’ve left it to individual sites to have policies.”

In one of the worst advertising years on record, it’s not surprising publishers would balk at policies that would curb precious revenue — even if the long-term effect is to everyone’s detriment.

Zimbalist agrees. “There’s no question the downturn in advertising has created a buyers’ market, and that has created a situation where more and more experimental formats have been introduced. Publishers are measuring their willingness to push advertisers. They’re actually saying ‘no’ to advertisers, sometimes. In a down economy, that shows stamina.”

Though Zimbalist insists “quality sites tend to have policies,” they can be thin to the point of embarrassing. It took me a couple of days to get to Forbes.com’s due to a persistent Nextel pop-up generating peppy, nonuser initiated jazz. Playboy.com says interaction must be initiated by users, but specs practically broadcast “no looping restrictions,” iterated repeatedly (occasionally in boldface). None of the leading travel sites has guidelines, excepting Expedia’s rule about user-initiated audio. News, tech, and financial sites have marginally weightier policies.

Why not give some thought to what works for your audience and your advertisers? Draft ad guidelines (you can always update or amend them as long as they’re not chiseled into stone). Advertisers will think you’re smarter. Your audience will feel your respect.

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