Intrusive Ads on the Way Out

Do you ever get that Zeitgeist tingle? Some might call it a “disturbance in the force,” others intuition, others a gut feeling. What I’m talking about is that little nagging, almost-subconscious feeling that lets you know something big is about to happen to the public consciousness. I’ll tell you one thing… I’ve been feeling it big time lately.

What I’ve been feeling is this: Consumers are getting pretty sick of shady, intrusive marketing practices and they’re not going to take it any more. This disgust, frustration, and irritation are about to bring a backlash that’s going to impact how all of us Web marketers run our businesses.

Let’s step back and examine the trend lines.

Pop-Ups

First, the ubiquitous pop-up. Sure, they annoy people, but they’re effective from a direct-response standpoint. There’s no question. Marketers love their effectiveness, and publishers love that they’re instantly granted more inventory and a bigger format to sell. Pop-ups should be a no-brainer.

But they aren’t.

Why? Because they’re irritating to users and few companies want to have “irritating” associated with their brands. Though we’ve all seen (and, for the most part, loathed) the ubiquitous X-10 ads, Nielsen//NetRatings reported late last year fewer than 10 percent of online advertisers were using pop-ups. Meanwhile, major ISPs such as EarthLink and AOL have responded to user complaints by making pop-up blocking a selling point for their services. Clearly consumer feedback matters. Mark one point in the trend plot.

Pay for Placement

On to the next point in the trend: search engine backlash. For a couple years now, search engines have been allowing advertisers to pay for placement, something all of us know about. But some search engines weren’t so great at disclosing that advertisers could pay for placement and didn’t differentiate paid listings from algorithmic listings. Responding to consumer complaints, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) stepped in and sent a letter to the major search engines in June 2002 calling them on the problem. Many, such as Google and Overture, took steps to correct the problem. Issue over, right?

Wrong.

On April 24, I was pleased to attend Consumer WebWatch’s first Web credibility summit, “Building Trust on the Web” in New York City. Experts and heavy-hitters from all over the Web world converged to discuss the Web’s growing credibility problem. Although topics ranged from healthcare sites to news sites to travel sites, some of the most heated discussions I witnessed related to search engines.

Consumer WebWatch (an arm of Consumers Union) revealed a new study (not online at press time) that showed despite “pay for placement” being public knowledge, many consumers don’t know it’s going on. Worse, once they were “enlightened” their search engine results may be paid results, most were pretty peeved.

Amazingly, Consumer WebWatch also found that though consumers clearly saw the “sponsored links” disclaimer, few knew “sponsored” meant “paid”! Those of us in the biz may be aware (and probably participate in) the practice, but consumers don’t seem to be getting the message and are apparently feeling pretty deceived once they find out. I’m not sure what’s going to happen here, but I suspect we’re going to be hearing a lot more about this subject in the coming months. Mark another point in the trend line.

Spam

Finally we get to spam. Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam. It seems like for the past few weeks it’s been tough to get away from the subject. Though I haven’t conducted a full media audit to prove the point, it seems every major network, newspaper, and media outlet has had some story about spam and its impact during the past three weeks, all leading up to the FTC’s Spam Forum last week.

I can’t prove it, but I trace the upwelling in anti-spam sentiment to Ferris Research’s January study, pegging the cost of spam to U.S. business at $9 billion. Since then, there’s been a flurry of legislative activity, heartily endorsed by many consumers. Virginia’s new tough anti-spam law is sure to send ripples throughout the direct marketing industry, if for no other reason than half the traffic on the Net flows through the state.

Last week it all culminated at the FTC’s Spam Forum, with some pretty harsh words being tossed around and the specter of federal anti-spam legislation rearing its head. The snowball, already heading downhill, is certainly picking up steam. Mark the third point in the trend line.

There’s no getting around it: Consumers are pissed off and they’re not going to take it anymore. Much of the discussion in professional circles (such as at the Consumer WebWatch summit and The Direct Marketing Association) sounds like just so much preaching to the choir, but it’s vital we, as an industry, begin to address the problems on our own before the government steps in and makes a mess of the whole thing.

We need to begin by consistently taking the high road and choosing what’s right rather than what’s expedient. We need to understand fighting every restriction only makes us look worse in the eyes of consumers and the government. We also need to work diligently to educate both ourselves and our clients to do the right thing… before we have no other choice.

There’s a tingle in the Zeitgeist… and ignoring it isn’t going to make it go away.

Meet Sean at ClickZ E-Mail Strategies in New York City on May 19 and 20.

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