Pop-Up Ads, Part 1: Good? Bad? Ugly?

If domination of newspaper headlines, industry studies, consumer polls, and market reports is any indication, it’s safe to say pop-up ads are the most contentious online advertising format yet. Any wonder they’re getting so much attention? Most reports say consumers downright despise these “intrusive” and “annoying” messages. We’ve all seen the articles — some more melodramatic than others — quoting outraged surfers who throw around words such as “violated” and “molested” to describe their experiences with the scandalous ad format. We’re smack in the middle of a media-fueled consumer backlash rivaling the assault against spam. There’s no end in sight.

Things are now more complicated than ever. A recent Dynamic Logic study shed new light on the controversial issue. As it turns out, Internet users are actually more tolerant of pop-ups than previously thought. Results of the survey showed 72 percent of U.S. Web users accept limited use of pop-ups, and 47 percent agree as many as two to six ads per hour are “appropriate” to support free content. This suggests it’s not so much pop-up ads that irk consumers, but the sheer volume of ads they must endure during any single session.

This news has left marketers scratching their heads. One the one hand, we hear consumers chanting pop-ups are intolerable and should be stopped. Commercial ad-blocking software that zaps pop-ups indicates there are consumers whose hatred of pop-ups runs so deep they’re willing to pay good money to retaliate. On the other hand, research tells us consumers are OK with pop-ups — in moderation. They understand most free sites are supported by ads, and viewing online ads is the price they pay to skirt subscriber fees.

This uncertainty leaves us with the question: Should we or shouldn’t we include pop-ups in our online campaigns? In the past, opinions divided media buyers into two camps. For those in favor of pop-ups, the consensus was exposure and increased brand awareness was worth running the risk of potential collateral damage, such as a tarnished company name or a temporarily boycotted product. Skeptics, meanwhile, opposed the ads for fear of falling victim to these same consequences. Overly cautious media buyers considered pop-up advocates foolish and reckless. Pop-up supporters flooded the online environment with ads.

The conflict peaked in reaction to pop-up and pop-under advertisers X10 and Orbitz, whose carpet bomb approach took online advertising to a new level. Tireless tactics and devil-may-care attitudes seemed to offer an opportunity for marketers to finally learn the value and purpose of pop-up advertising. They became our guinea pigs. Was their hard-line approach to Internet marketing self-destructive? After dissecting and scrutinizing the campaigns, contradictory results only spawned more confusion. We regarded them with aversion (for blatant disregard of consumer irritation) and awe (for managing to elevate their brand awareness to near-mythical status). But we have no firm conclusions.

As whatever we believe about consumer attitude toward pop-ups continues to be challenged, a third camp emerges. This one comprises slightly more daring media buyers determined to gain a better understanding of this baffling format by doing some testing of their own. Should we embrace or eschew pop-ads when planning campaigns? Do pop-ups work best when combined with other, less aggressive ad formats? Will frequency caps be our salvation?

We may already have answers to some of these tough questions. We’ll look at them next week in part two. In the meantime, what have your own tests revealed? Share your stories. By pooling our experiences, we’ll unravel the mystery of this format!

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