Making Pop-Under Ads Work?

A handful of online brands are synonymous with pop-under ads. It’s arguable travel provider Orbitz is at the top of that list. You’re sure to have seen its ads somewhere, because they’re everywhere — from news and travel sites to networks all over the Web.

You’ve probably also wondered what marketers behind those ads are thinking when they develop such campaigns, especially given the consumer and media backlash directed at pop-up and pop-under advertisers over the past year.

In the case of Orbitz, the marketers are thinking pop-under ads work. I recently spoke with Otherwise Inc., Orbitz’s e-marketing agency of record since the travel provider’s launch just over a year ago. We discussed what I previously referred to as Orbitz’s “carpet bomb” approach to pop-under advertising that’s been going on since late summer of 2001.

According to Mark Rattin, the agency’s creative director, when the campaign launched, use of pop-unders was minimal. Back then, Rattin and his team used more traditional formats, such as 468 x 60 pixel banners and skyscrapers. The ads got a better than industry average click-through rates, averaging between 1 and 1.2 percent, but Orbitz was anxious to experiment. So Rattin began incorporating the “new flavor” of online advertising, pop-unders, into the campaign. They measured everything and quickly saw the pop-unders were producing not only click-through rates that were much higher than the industry average but also an increase in conversion rates as well.

Since then, those infamous pop-unders have become an core component of Orbitz’s online advertising initiatives. In terms of generating tangible results, there’s no doubt the ads work. What online marketers everywhere want to know is: What about public opinion?

To be sure, Orbitz has captured the interest of a sizeable portion of the dedicated online population. How has the aggressive use of this ad format affected consumer perception of the Orbitz brand more generally?

Ask your average consumer, and you’ll probably find much pop-under ad hostility is still out there. One could argue Otherwise risks alienating potential Orbitz customers with every impression it delivers. The sustained use of pop-unders certainly assures its client will be associated with and other reviled advertisers that flood the Net with pop-unders.

Otherwise is hanging tight. Rattin points out that pop-unders, which are hidden under your browser only to come into view when you exit a site, don’t interrupt the user experience as much as pop-ups do. “The nature of advertising in general is to be intrusive”, says Rattin in defense of his campaign. “We’re struggling with something that will yield better results than traditional ads.”

As the campaigns continue, the masterminds responsible for building Orbitz online are working to improve public opinion of their client’s brand in a way that won’t require them to abandon the cash-cow ad format Orbitz has come to rely on. They stress the importance of respecting the user experience, says Rattin.

Most of Orbitz’s pop-unders are created in Flash, promoting the various services (flights, car rentals, hotels, etc.) it offers. Otherwise tries to make ads humorous and entertaining, even a little quirky, so consumers who may not be interested in the product won’t be quite as offended — a sensible strategy many mass-market advertisers tend to ignore.

Each campaign employs 15 to 20 different ad creatives, all emphasizing the “fun and romance of travel.” The use of multiple creatives and ad messages not only diminishes the irritation factor surfers experience when seeing the same ad repeatedly but also has proven to enhance overall response rates.

Rattin insists all Orbitz placements are attached to a stringent frequency cap of one ad per user per day per site. This approach doesn’t prevent heavy Internet users from seeing numerous Orbitz ads on a given day, but it does spare them repeated interruptions while they are browsing any particular site.

In the case of Orbitz and Otherwise Inc., an awareness of the overall negative public sentiment toward their chosen method of online advertising seems to have made these marketers just a little more sensitive to the consumer experience and how their online presence can affect it. Whether they’ve uncovered the secret of successfully employing one of the least popular ad formats remains to be seen. But as a media buyer and a consumer, I’m happy at least one mass-market advertiser out there genuinely respects its audience. We might be wise to take a lesson or two from Orbitz.

Right, X10?

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