Contextual Advertising: The Consumer’s Point of View

After last week’s column on buying contextual advertising, it’s clearer than ever this is one of the most controversial issues to hit online advertising in some time. Not since the turbulent heights of the consumer-versus-advertiser pop-up debate has a form of Internet marketing drawn so much attention or incited so much raw anger. This time, it’s site owners and publishers who are incensed — and with good reason.

No doubt certain forms of contextual advertising travel the Web uninvited. They meddle with editorial content and reduce site publishers’ control over their own Web properties. The issue in this column is media buying. Some of us may fundamentally disagree with the tactics used, but we’re here to serve our clients. We must therefore approach every form of online advertising with a neutral point of view. It’s our job to ensure placements we employ don’t offend or alienate consumers, the audience we are paid to reach.

How do consumers view contextual advertising? Their impressions are likely to vary based on the ad program at hand. There’s the contextual advertising generated by software consumers can download free from companies such as Gator, WhenU, and eZula. What prompts consumers to download the software? According to eZula, “The motivation for downloading the software is a function of the tools inherent to that software.” eZula software offers such benefits as access to dictionary and encyclopedia programs. WhenU includes online offers and money-saving coupons among its user benefits.

The second method uses partnerships with other sites to distribute content-targeted text advertising. Pay-per-search players Google and Sprinks just introduced new contextual advertising programs based on this system.

From a consumer perspective, these text ads shouldn’t annoy or confound any more than targeted pay-per-search text ads do. They’re targeted enough to prompt users to click but passive enough not to irritate them while they’re browsing or shopping online. This gives Google and Sprinks a definite edge with media buyers, who are likely to consider such a media buy fairly risk-free.

What of software-generated ads, the ones that aggressively attempt to hook users by promoting competing products? Site publishers often tar them as “unethical” and “immoral.” Is it possible consumers might react to the negative press and boycott products promoted via these ads? Could links leading from one retailer’s site to a competitor frustrate and confuse them?

In theory, software-generated contextual ads shouldn’t incite any more puzzlement or anger among Internet users than any other form of online promotion. That’s assuming contextual advertising vendors avoid underhanded tactics for increasing their user base.

Companies must ensure consumers are fully aware of what they’re getting into. They must provide an option for them to install their product. If they do, consumers have no reason to harbor unique resentment toward these ads. Unfortunately, some companies out there have resorted to deception to snag registered users. That’s sure to rile consumers.

I experienced this abysmal situation while researching last week’s column. Ironically, while visiting the advertiser section of one software-based contextual advertising site, I got a pop-up ad promoting its primary competitor. I was receiving contextual advertising but never intentionally downloaded the necessary software.

As it turns out, the software was bundled with another program I recently downloaded, in a way that made its presence imperceptible to the end user. I didn’t appreciate being duped into downloading it. I’d wager any consumer would feel the same way.

An advertiser may not intend its message be distributed in this underhanded fashion. Ultimately, it will be the advertiser, not the company that delivered the ad, consumers blame. How can media buyers avoid saddling their clients with this fate?

Don’t write off contextual advertising altogether. With clients showing such escalating interest, that’s something we just can’t do. Instead, marketers should do their research before making a buy. Just as you’d investigate the origin of email lists you rent, question contextual advertising companies about the methods they use to build their software-user database. Demand to see the data. If companies won’t provide it, maybe they’ve got something to hide.

This isn’t the first form of online advertising to provoke heated debate, and it certainly won’t be the last. Media buyers, remember the role you play. Always consider the consumer point of view. You’re here on your client’s behalf, but the consumer’s happiness determines your success.

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