Pop-Up Warfare: Is Peace Possible?

I expected that last week’s column on iVillage’s decision to ban pop-ups might spark discussion among media buyers and online marketers. After all, it’s a decision that changes how we plan campaigns by limiting where we can buy certain formats. To my surprise, the majority of feedback came from consumers.

Why the mass interest? As advertisers, publishers, and users continue to butt heads on pop-ups and whether this “intrusive” format exceeds what users are willing to tolerate in exchange for free online content, the users remain on the defensive. Many feel under attack. They think advertisers employing pop-ups have no respect for their personal virtual space. They’ve also seen that by voicing their views (as iVillage users had the opportunity to do in a recent poll), they have the power to influence a publisher’s decisions.

Many consumers assert their power even further. They’re making a statement by boycotting products advertised in pop-up and pop-under ads. Though not all consumers view the formats so negatively. If they did, advertisers such as Orbitz wouldn’t be seeing notable return on investment (ROI) on their pop-under ads. But those who dislike them aren’t viewing ads quietly.

That consumers have become so prickly over the issue should be of real concern to media buyers, advertisers, and publishers. The common objective of all these parties is to attract consumers, not repel them. But that’s exactly what we seem to be doing by continuing to make the same mistakes that triggered a backlash in the first place.

Internet users aren’t unreasonable. Studies continue to show they’re willing to accept advertising in tolerable quantities in exchange for free content. What they want (and what we absolutely need to ensure they get) is targeted advertising in respectable doses.

For every media buyer and advertiser who takes the time to research the demo- and psychographics of sites’ audiences, to create an ad that appeals to the specific market, and to demand that ad be delivered with a frequency cap suitable for the specific format, there are many more who use what one ClickZ reader eloquently referred to as “the machine-gun approach of spraying the creative across a bunch of sites and see[ing] what works.” If you’re surfing an interesting site and you see one ad, just one moderately-sized pop-up advertising a product or service that corresponds with your tastes and needs, will you slam your fist down and damn all pop-ups? Probably not.

The influx of ads that don’t speak to a specific audience yet are repeatedly delivered in massive quantities that have left a bad taste in the mouths of consumers tarnished formats’ reputations and made the job of responsible advertisers that much more difficult.

Publishers share liability for letting the situation get this far by not insisting on better targeting and demanding frequency caps. As one of ClickZ’s coeditors pointed out recently, it’s about giving more thought to the user experience. The solution isn’t to eschew ad formats users might find frustrating. Rather, it’s to standardize the use of advertising in a way users will approve of. What better way to mollify visitors and still bring in the revenues pop-ups provide?

Regardless of what we on the advertising side do, some consumers will always despise online advertising. As long as the Internet is a commercial medium with the bulk of its content subsidized by advertising, advertising is not going to go away. If publishers aren’t willing to exert more control over ads they accept, perhaps the solution is for more of them to offer optional paid access to their sites and offer consumers an ad-free experience. If consumers were given the option and actively chose to see ads, there might be less resentment. Then, we might be able to repair some of the damage that’s been done.

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