R-E-S-P-E-C-T… Find Out What It Means to Thee

A backlash is gaining momentum in the online world. A few weeks ago, EarthLink announced it would offer software to users to block most pop-up and -under ads anywhere they surf. A few weeks earlier, iVillage also distanced itself from this ad format, saying it had too many complaints from visitors.

This puts sites in a tough position. On one hand, they need the revenue running the ads brings in. On the other, they want to create an environment in which visitors are comfortable and persuaded to return. Is it possible to do both?

I believe it is. Let’s consider the role of the oft-reviled pop-up. In its basic form, a pop-up is merely a way to present information to a consumer. The message an ad offers consumers is what determines its value in the marketplace. A vast number of messages are presented each year to reach a vast number of different consumers. The overall value of any offer is in the eye of the beholder.

Done right, pop-ups are a tool to inform or remind. They can range from simple billboard-type ads to more complex interactive offerings. By themselves, they are just ad units, hardly distinguishable from print or even outdoor.

Why do so many consumers hate pop-ups? Because many ads are designed to make consumers feel stupid. We’ve been suckered, tricked, bombarded, and bullied by ads that will do anything to be seen, even if the result is blind, seething rage or a desire to take a shower to feel cleansed.

There are no hard-and-fast rules for creating pop-ups that meet the needs of both the advertiser and the consumer, but below are a few suggestions.

Avoid Ads That Force Compliance

Tricking or forcing users into clicking doesn’t serve a useful purpose for the consumer or advertiser. Though the advertiser may bump up its click-through rate with this approach, it is systematically eliminate individual consumers willing to do business with them in the future.

Many marketers will defend the approach, claiming it’s effective. Well, robbing a bank can be an effective way to get rich quick. It isn’t ethical, and it’s less effective over time.

Advertisers should remember who it is they want to reach
— people who will keep them in business. The aggressive, no-holds-barred approach is a boiler-room technique that may be perfect for bilking little old ladies out of their pensions, but in the real world if you’re trying to build a customer base, treat candidates with the respect they want.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

If advertisers think getting a branding message in front of a consumer 87 times a day is effective marketing, they should think again. A periodic showing can serve as a reminder of what an advertiser can offer to the marketplace. Increased exposure to a single branding message will upset the delicate balance between providing information and antagonizing consumers.

An ad seen too often, whether on TV, in print, or online, loses its value as an information tool as it becomes an annoyance. The average adult human mind doesn’t like to input the same information repeatedly. If you doubt this, listen to the same song 50 times in a row or read the same page of a book over and over. Psychic pain results. Most humans will do anything they can to avoid pain.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Sites have a responsibility to maintain a level of decorum. The need to collect advertising revenue is a business reality, but publishers must put restrictions on the number of pop-up ads they will allow any single consumer to wade through.

When a consumer closes her browser window, the revelation of 18 pop-unders isn’t met with chortles of joy. She’ll close most of them so quickly she won’t see the content. The consumer takes the path of least resistance. This may meet the needs of sites running the ads, but eventually advertisers will question the effectiveness of this marketing approach and start moving marketing dollars elsewhere.

The Golden Rule

We, too, are consumers that advertisers market to. Though a few among us may be in line for the title of village idiot, most of us are intelligent, perceptive, ethical people who avoid situations that make us feel uncomfortable. Treating a potential customer base like idiots will sow contempt and hatred for advertisers imprudent enough to go there.

When designing an ad, design it from the standpoint of what is valuable to the consumer. If an ad presents information about an offer, does it tell the consumer what’s in it for him? Or what’s in it for the advertiser? The consumer rarely cares about what an advertiser offers unless it has personal relevance.

An ad’s format gives a message a way to reach the consumer. A well-designed ad can streamline effectiveness and leave the consumer feeling positive about the opportunity presented. The format can also torpedo the message, no matter how well intentioned. If the consumer perceives the ad to be sleazy, underhanded, opportunistic, insincere, or insulting, a “we think you’re a moron who will click on anything” message comes through loud and clear.

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