How Far Is Too Far?

When times get tough, we all face moral questions.

How far would you go to get money out of your audience, and how far is too far?

I recently held an online conversation with a long-standing friend who wants to go into micropayments. In this variation, the payments would go on the ad, and the money automatically forwarded from advertiser to site when a user clicked or bought. The ad would be for content, perhaps e-books delivered chapter by chapter. (If this is of interest to you, let me know, and I’ll put you in touch.)

The second step down this road is the “lagging pop-up windows” now being deployed on CNN sites as well as those of Time Inc. Each time you leave one of these sites, the pop-up asks you to subscribe to a Time Inc. magazine. Never mind if you already subscribe — the window doesn’t know that. It’s a bit like the blow-in cards you see in print publications. They’re very annoying, but they work and you already bought the magazine.

Pop-up windows don’t have to be house ads, either, as CBS.SportsLine has been demonstrating for months. MSNBC has begun launching pop-ups for products alongside a far more aggressive top-of-the-page ad layout, with a specific product listed in the right-hand corner along with three “featured stores” in the product category. These ads open up two new browser windows, one going to the store and the other to an interstitial ad.

CNET has taken another step down this road. Its redesign is geared mainly toward accommodating rich media ads (made with Macromedia’s Flash) that start near the bottom of the typical PC screen. These ads are no bother at all for broadband users, although those with modems may see a slight delay in loading content. My guess is this is an innovation that will have real legs — expect it soon on a mass-market site near you.

The New York Times now keeps an ad strip on the right column of each screen. The strip carries a vertical banner as well as a lot of text links to advertisers. This is on top of a top-of-the-page banner and a secondary banner between a section deck and headlines. Many ads have also been redesigned, incorporating numerous text links that may (to some) look like news stories.

Somewhere down this road you know you’re going to meet Spamford Wallace. Wallace is backing an “entertainment” site called (nope, I’m not linking to it) that uses all the tricks of a porn operator to force ads on unsuspecting users. Just try and leave — Spamford will throw three separate pop-up ad windows at you.

I’ve also been getting a new, nastier type of spam here lately. Clicking on the headline (in order to move it to my “spam” folder) sets it to not only forcing open new browser windows, but to downloading who knows what. I don’t ask — I just hit the delete button.

Each of these techniques is a step down a slippery slope. You have to measure your need for revenue against the patience of your audience. If you make the wrong choice, you burn your audience and have nothing to sell against.

Good luck.

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