Bludgeon Not Thy Potential Customer

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a friend:

I can’t understand why advertisers (and the companies that assist them in the Web world) think they can jam ads into users’ faces and expect that to provide a positive “impression.” Where does this “bludgeon thy potential customer” mentality come from, and why does it persist?

In this case, my friend was referring to a recent software update from Apple that disabled pop-up blocking software. It makes users fair game for advertisers who really, really want to get a message to them.

I’ve spoken before about unsavory online advertising practices, such as non-user-initiated audio or video files that suddenly blast at high volume, ads that feature fake close boxes that really click through to a landing page, or ads that look interactive but aren’t. Such ads generally only send the message that the advertiser is dishonest and can’t be trusted.

One of rich media advertising’s deepest benefits is it’s a great way to start a dialogue with customers. By creating an interactive, or even a well-designed, animated ad, advertisers can make a positive emotional impression that accompanies an offer and reflects back on them. We associate products with the benefits they offer and must generally have a positive impression about any transaction before we’re willing to make a purchase.

With most intrusive ads, the first emotion consumers feel is annoyance. When ads find a way around the safeguards and barriers we’ve erected, the first reaction is disgust, followed by a pinch of righteous indignation.

It’s a respect thing. If I asked you not to come to my house during dinner to sell me something and you do anyway, chances are I may forget my manners and slam the door in your face.

Trying to sell to people who expressed, via pop-up blockers, they don’t want to hear your message is aggressive and rude. I suspect the conversion rates for campaigns that weasel their way past pop-up blockers is very low, if not nonexistent.

There’s another side to this coin. Some online marketers feel users who willingly using pop-up blockers when visiting their sites are, in essence, stealing from them. The thinking is if you come to a site and purposely choose not to see the ads, you’re directly affecting the site’s revenue stream. You get the site’s benefit without paying the toll. Obviously, this applies more to content than e-commerce sites.

As a consumer, I personally want to control what I see and experience while online. I’m also fair-minded and have few issues with an equitable exchange of content for attention. Yet, if you want me to watch an ad on your site, you’d better let me know beforehand that it’s part of the deal. I’m not in the habit of taking something that isn’t mine, but like many other people, I find pop-up ads annoying and disruptive. I opt not to see them. Unilaterally deciding I’m stealing from a site and therefore worthy of an ad that bypasses my pop-up blocker doesn’t feel like an equitable arrangement. It feels like a rude and unnecessary shot across the bow.

The negativity surrounding most pop-up ads is against the technology. Yet the associated brand often comes under fire, not how it got there. If I were an advertiser, I’d make certain my brand wasn’t used as a sledgehammer to get a consumer’s attention.

I’m in the online marketing business. My job is to create content that can be seen by the greatest number of targeted consumers. Interactive rich media ads do a great job in this area. However, it’s become clear to me and other marketers that pop-ups, regardless of content, are a highly imperfect way to get my messages to consumers. If pop-ups can’t do the job, there are certainly other approaches that will.

If I visit a content site and the cost of admission is watching a 15- or 30-second video or animated ad, for example, I’ll watch it without breaking stride. It’s a model I recognize and accept from years of TV broadcasting. It’s a fair exchange. I needn’t be tricked or assaulted to get onboard.

Heck, even asking a visitor for an email address that can be used to send sponsored monthly newsletters is still based on give and take. If a marketer is willing to take the time to establish a relationship with a visitor, he’ll find he gains more acceptance and perhaps is even able to cultivate a buying relationship over time.

Bottom line: There are many ways to reach consumers. Justifying rude advertising approaches seems spiteful and poorly thought out. Working with consumers to establish a marketing arrangement that works for both sides is not only a mature approach but will have far-reaching benefits a simple assault can never compete with.

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