Forced Entry: The Intrusiveness Question

Americans with a Web connection spend about as much time online as they do watching TV. This statistical tidbit comes to us via a recent survey of American online and media habits by Jupiter Research (a unit of ClickZ’s parent corporation). Another interesting number from the same survey: Nearly 70 percent of those people think online ads are among the most intrusive as opposed to only 40 percent who dub TV ads the most intrusive.

That’s television advertising — the medium in which a broadcaster builds the story up to a cliffhanger… then stops. Stops the story, stops the momentum, and airs a short film about laundry soap. By nature, TV advertising is the most intrusive format. Yet it isn’t seen that way.

The reason for this apparent paradox has more to do with expectations from the medium than with attitudes toward advertising. Before marketers shy away from online advertising, worried they’ll barge in like uninvited guests, they should examine the source of these reactions. Intrusiveness isn’t the problem. Irrelevance is.

Consider the content experience of the different media, TV and the Internet. On TV, content flows like a stream. Miss an episode of “Friends” and (assuming you’re not a member of the TiVo clan), tough luck. When something unwanted comes along (like an ad), it’s perceived as part of that stream. Viewers understand nothing’s lost in looking away until “their” stream continues. They dislike commercials yet forgive commercial interruptions.

Online is different. Content’s always present, always accessible. When an ad is onscreen, even just occupying space where content could or should be, it’s perceived as being in the way of the experience. TV spots are much more intrusive but are seen as less so, because of the way people feel they should be able to experience the medium.

One online advertising format is intrusive. A pop-up ad requires the user to delete it before she can view the content she was seeking. Recently vilified and banished from the kingdom by AOL and others, pop-ups are the most intrusive online format according to consumers. Forty-three percent of respondents to our consumer survey report pop-ups to be the most intrusive advertising, period.

There’s a simple solution to the intrusiveness issue. Make pop-ups relevant. Make them add value to the task the consumer pursues. A visit to MTV.com results in — yes, a dastardly pop-up window. The content promotes Coke’s extremely popular music site, which allows users to get music, remix songs, and share them online. Users presumably visit MTV.com for a music experience. This ad, by definition, intrudes — but with the right offer at the right time. Relevance tempers intrusiveness.

Marketers, stop worrying about being intrusive online. It’s not a real issue. Instead, understand the task-oriented behavior driving consumers online. Find the spaces inside that flow where your brand will be accepted and acknowledged. Inside those spaces, offer value.

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