Rebuking the Most Hated Advertising Techniques

In early December, Jakob Nielsen posted an article, and his opinions, regarding research on how users perceive online advertising. He writes, “Sites that accept ads know little about how the ads affect their users and the degree to which problematic advertising tricks can undermine a site’s credibility.”

Now, I won’t dispute certain online advertising techniques may perturb and annoy. But let’s face facts. If these techniques didn’t work, they wouldn’t last very long. So are media buyers supposed to avoid buying these kinds of ads altogether? No, and here’s why.

The Offenders

When users were asked how various aspects of online ads affected their Web experience, many of the ad techniques identified by the study had to do with pop-up or rich media ads.

Conduct a straw poll of your friends and family who aren’t in our industry. Ask if, in general, they like any online ads or if they pay attention to the many ads they see on the Web. You already know the answer, don’t you?

It’s easy to ignore many of the online ads that don’t interrupt the online experience. Users can normally go about their business, looking without clicking. Unlike TV, radio, and print ads, which to some extent interrupt the media experience, nonintrusive ads are easily ignored… and are therefore less effective.

The thing about pop-ups and these other techniques is they’re intrusive on purpose. You can’t avoid or ignore them entirely, so the advertiser has a better chance of getting its message across. In fact, a 2003 study by showed pop-ups are 13 times more effective in generating clicks and conversions than standard banners. reports that according to ad agencies, for every 97 people who zap such an ad, three click on it. Who wants to dispute success?

The case is much the same for rich media ads. Despite complaints, rich media ads have been shown to outperform typical banner ads. The sector is one of the fastest-growing in online advertising. A July 2003 DoubleClick white paper found that rich media substantially beat both lift and effectiveness benchmarks compared to non-rich media.

A newly released report by Research and Markets found rich media ad spending grew nearly 37 percent in 2004. The organization projects rich media growth rates over 25 percent for the next three years.

Apparently, size does matter. To those who complain about ads that occupy the majority of the page or ads that cover what they’re trying to see, there’s evidence that bigger ads lead to better performance. Dynamic Logic research shows bigger ads do perform better, particularly when it comes to delivering branding messages. There’s just more space through which to get the advertiser’s point across.

Of course, with lousy ad creative, no ad can be effective. Complaints about ad creative (“tries to trick you into clicking,” “doesn’t have a ‘close’ button,” and “doesn’t say what it’s for”) have legitimacy. Clicks, especially mistaken ones, don’t lead to conversions.

On the other hand, the Ponemon Institute, dedicated to privacy management practices in business and government, found people actually are more accepting of online advertising so long as ads are targeted toward them or are what they’re looking for. That’s why search advertising continues to work so well.

There are other impediments for media buyers and site publishers to overcome: spyware and user ignorance. When a user can’t tell a screen blanketed with multiple unwanted ad messages is the result of spyware, not generated by the site itself, the legitimate online ad industry still incurs the user’s wrath.

Are online users saying they want to be in total control of their online advertising experience? Have they forgotten they get tons of free information for a pittance: being subjected to, at most, seconds of annoyance? How do they expect sites to support themselves without direct revenue or advertising? Let’s get real. The Net must support itself, and, annoying or not, ad techniques that work are here to stay.

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