Beyond Pop-Ups

The once-ubiquitous pop-up may have all but vanished from the news over the past year, but hardly a day goes by when I don’t hear from a marketer desperate to incorporate the format into his campaign. Consumer usage of pop-up blocking software is increasing. So are the number of ISPs and browsers offering the feature. Yet that’s not enough to dissuade marketers from gravitating to the format.

Many advertisers cite other marketers’ success as providing the impetus for their resolve. We can’t criticize them for that. Countless brands have been plucked from obscurity and transformed into household names solely via pop-up advertising. Once advertisers couldn’t afford not to engage the annoying but successful format. Just a year ago, Advertising.com released a study that showed pop-up ads produce a CTR 13 times higher than a standard banner. The average conversion rate was over 14 times better than that of a 468 x 60 banner.

Pop-ups are the obvious choice when increasing brand exposure is a concern, too. Not only are they noticeable, they’re usually cheap. Some say buyers are astute to employ the format when they’re responsible for accounts pitted against competitors with hefty online budgets (in light of statistical evidence, perhaps they really are astute).

Several new studies on consumer perception of the format may reveal all this praise as premature. It could result in a rude awakening for residual pop-up fans. Forrester Research released a report indicating 64 percent of Internet users still find pop-ups “irritating.” Sound reminiscent of the avalanche of studies we saw in 2002?

There’s more.

According to a similar report commissioned by Web behavior firm Bunnyfoot Universality, annoying consumers isn’t pop-ups’ only potential consequence. The ads renowned for capturing eyeballs aren’t even being viewed. The Bunnyfoot report states the average time it takes for a pop-up to display a company’s logo (never mind the call to action) is 8.2 seconds. The average user shuts the window in 2.5 seconds.

Worse, the study reveals 60 percent of Web users mistrust “any company that uses — or even hosts — pop-ups.” “Brands undoubtedly committing commercial suicide by insisting on using pop-ups,” the company’s director of business behavior said in a statement. “Pop-ups are therefore not just a huge waste of money; they are also extremely negative for a brand.”

If that isn’t a kick in the pants to pop-up buyers, I don’t know what is. We all know the importance of trust to a brand in establishing a consumer base, driving sales, and increasing brand loyalty over time. Once your target market loses trust in your brand, no amount of damage control is likely to save it from a quick and quiet death.

If you think the data I’ve cited so far is contradictory (how could consumers loathe pop-ups, yet continue to click?), you’re right. But pop-ups aren’t the only form of advertising that comes saddled with inconsistent research results.

Consider telemarketing and spam, the most reviled forms of marketing of them all. Ask a consumer her opinion of these, and she’ll launch into a diatribe about how they disrupt her life. Ask the “marketers” who call and spam consumers about their results. They’ll say they make money hand over fist. If these marketing techniques didn’t work, they’d disappear. The fact is, someone out there is responding.

That doesn’t make it right… or smart. Pop-up ads work. They get consumers’ attention. They deliver results. But if you wouldn’t consider spamming your customers or calling them at home ad nauseam for fear of what it might do to your brand, pop-ups are not your format. These marketing techniques simply aren’t known for building consumer confidence in the products they peddle. If you value the public’s perception of your brand, consider seeking new ad formats.

An obstinate few will continue to use pop-ups, despite the warnings. Maybe some will even get the results they seek. But when you’ve got the option of going with another form of advertising that’s proven to work without besmirching your brand, I can’t imagine why you’d take the risk.

What are your views on pop-ups? Tell me your thoughts.

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