They’ve Hijacked Your Inbox — Is Your Browser Next?

Let’s take a quick poll: Who likes spam?

Hmm… I don’t see too many hands out there, except you diehard email marketers who don’t like anyone criticizing what you do and fear the “slippery slope” argument that regulating spam will infringe on your business. Yeah, right.

Although most hate it, the sad truth is spam works. It must, or I wouldn’t keep getting the same lame offers flooding my email box every day. Nobody would bother if people didn’t respond.

The same goes for pop-unders. They work, too. Who out there hasn’t heard of X10? Now that we mainstream marketers discovered X10’s success with its annoying tactic, pop-unders show up just about everywhere. Why? They work. They get responses.

Of course, much of that traffic, according to Jupiter, is “mass, undifferentiated traffic” — not all that effective. Survey after survey shows consumers hate anything that interferes with their online experience. There’s no question consumers hate unsolicited email. But people keep responding, and desperate marketers with dreams of Internet riches keep using these irritating formats. For now.

Why? Online advertising was oversold from the beginning. Its much-touted measurability was its Achilles’ heel. In pre-Net days, advertisers knew instinctively the old saw is true: “I know that half my advertising isn’t working… I just don’t know which half.” With the Net, we know exactly what isn’t working. But nobody wants to hear it (least of all, those responsible).

Now we search for evermore intrusive models, hoping to create ads that can seize attention from increasingly jaded online consumers. Pop-unders, pop-ups, and other obscuring technologies may get noticed, but have we thought about what the long-term impact to the online experience will be?

A new, horrifying technology is coming out from United Virtualities (the same folks who brought us those irritating “shoskeles” that splash over our screens). It’s bound to alienate even more consumers… although I’m certain UV’s research will show it “works.”

This new technology, the Ooqa Ooqa, allows advertisers to change the toolbar of a user’s browser without requiring her to download anything. Details of how this works are sketchy at best. The gist is that Ooqa Ooqa lets ads appear in the browser’s toolbar, underneath the buttons used to navigate. Worse, this tech also lets the advertiser change the buttons themselves, turning the “back” button into a “buy” button or the “home” button into one that takes the user to the advertiser’s site.

Now I know many of you are salivating over this, and I don’t blame you. Having that much control over the user’s experience opens up a whole new world of possibilities. No longer do you have to worry that your quarry will back out of your site. No longer do you have to fear that your user might miss your message because it’s merely displayed in his browser window. What an incredibly powerful technology!

So are nuclear bombs. But just because we have ’em, doesn’t mean we should necessarily use ’em.

Your customers and prospects have a choice. They don’t have to come to your site or buy your products or even go on the Internet if they don’t want to. Over the past decade or so, most consumer trends have pointed to an increase in consumer desire for more control in their lives — in their spending and in the choices they make regarding products and services. One of the great draws of the Web is its ability to provide a vast number of choices, allowing consumers to shop wherever, read whatever, and talk to whomever they want.

It’s no news to anyone that we’re all struggling to keep our industry alive. Though quick-fix trickery might seem attractive now, it’s imperative all of us look to the long term and realize if we don’t have any customers, none of us will have any businesses. The legitimate email marketing industry has done a fantastic job at policing itself for that very reason, realizing that spam damages the industry in the long run. As we look at new Web-based advertising technologies, we should all consider the lessons of spam and make decisions that work in the long term, not just for the quick buck.

Hijacking browsers is bad business.

Related reading