Advertising: A Cry for Usability

Advertising is frequently interruption-based, posing a serious usability flaw. It’s very obvious on the Web as pop-up ads, audio, animation, Flash ads, and exit pops make the Internet increasingly difficult to navigate and use, and its content increasingly difficult to read.

Usability Problems Galore

Usability is more than a Web issue, and intrusion is more than a banner issue. While reading a magazine recently, I was struck by how difficult it was just to find the table of contents. There were several pages of ads obscuring the most vital part of the magazine. The rest of the design had similar usability problems: blow-in cards kept falling out as I opened new sections, card pages made flipping through the other pages nearly impossible, and continually interrupted content (e.g., “continued on page 178”) made it necessary to fight through more ads, cards, and blow-ins to finish reading an article. Very frustrating.

TV and radio are no better. The tactic of teasing viewers by withholding the answer — waiting until after a commercial to resolve the climax of a scene, announce the winner of a game show, or continue the rest of a news story — is essentially hiding the content behind an ad, preventing viewers from getting what they came for.

Similarly, one could argue that telemarketing, fax marketing, and even direct marketing are driven by interrupting use and content with advertising.

Advertisers Push Too Hard

It’s no wonder that consumers hate advertising. If the only way advertisers can get users’ attention is by standing in the path of desired content, then advertising has become a serious roadblock to using the Web.

Users are getting increasingly skillful at visually and mentally blocking out ads, so advertisers are getting more assertive. I was reading a news item about a lawsuit, then went to the company’s Web site to read its perspective. But an ad window repeatedly popped up from the background news site, interrupting my reading in the other browser. It became such a problem that I ended the session with the news site. It lost the impressions, click-throughs, and stickiness it would have had if I’d been able to keep the window open to read later. In another example, a colleague and I were looking up a news item together when he gave up, saying, “I can’t read this! There’s too much animation around it, and I’m getting a headache!” Again, the session ended.

Advertisers are simply trying too hard. Pressures in the Web ad market due to declining click-through rates and shrinking ad revenues are encouraging aggression and discouraging creativity. But there are alternatives to interruption-driven advertising. Obviously, if something is more usable, people will use it more. Designing ad messages with usability and content in mind can help save the Web. Some solutions are already out there.

  • Bookmarks, favorites, and guides. Both Netscape and Internet Explorer have long included advertiser sites within the browser interface, as part of a guide, default bookmark list, and Web guide buttons. This is singularly effective because it’s helpful to users — it’s a way of helping them find content rather than blocking it from them.

  • Sponsored search results. Most search engines offer paid spots at the top of search results. This works better than a banner ad because the sponsored spots feature content that is valuable to the reader and screened for relevancy; they are text-based and therefore have a chance to pitch their relevancy to the user; and several choices are offered in the same results, so the user can choose what’s relevant. It’s a win-win for users and advertisers alike.
  • Email-based campaigns. Sponsoring email content has the targeting benefits of Web advertising without the interruption and usability problems caused by aggressive banner rotations. I often hear Web users say, “Sometimes I want to click on a banner when I finish an article, but when I go back to the menu, a new ad has been rotated in.” Shifting ads around makes them difficult to find, a usability no-no. In email, the ad is pushed out like the best of broadcast, but the user has control over how and when to respond, making this a more usable solution.

Usability Is Essential for Advertising Success

When Web users complain about the invasiveness and interruption of online advertising, advertisers often try to justify themselves by insisting that interruption-based ads are necessary for the Web’s commercial existence. But other media are offering user-friendly advertising and doing quite well at it.

  • Print. The Economist magazine offers a logically placed and easy-to-find table of contents and simply arranged articles, and it does not have any ad interruptions that necessitate the continuation of articles on pages farther away from the article. Some magazines now put the table of contents on the first page, no matter what. Many magazines put the page numbers of cover stories right next to the headline, making it easy to find the story that caught your eye in the first place. The Wall Street Journal has built its reputation and brand on low-key, restrained advertising, resulting in trust and readership.

  • TV. Many European channels have existed for years without commercial interruptions. U.S. networks have experimented with commercial-free broadcasts of feature films — and even a well-publicized “ER” episode — with no discernible loss of revenue. The increasing use of timed recorders and systems like TiVo (which automatically removes commercials) will force broadcasters to take ad revulsion more seriously.

Perhaps the mass of advertisers will start following these leads. Advertisers need to start considering that usability is essential, not counter, to their campaign success. If advertisers want consumers to trust them, see them, and buy from them, they need to start helping users, not hindering them.

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