This Week’s Agenda: How Far Should Publishers Go?

I want to address a question here that really doesn’t belong to those of you in Internet marketing, but to publishers.

The question is, How far should publishers go in supporting the demands of advertisers for new ad formats, and how far is too far?

My exploration began with an article in TIME magazine on “pop-up killers.” These are programs that prevent HTML pop-ups from appearing on a user’s screen. (Ironically, the page where the article appeared contained a pop-up.) The recommended solution was PopUp Killer from xFX JumpStart. The program, I learned, doesn’t work against pop-unders, and it doesn’t distinguish between valuable editorial pop-ups (such as charts) and ads.

Somewhat later, I found myself victimized by a JavaScript pop-up program. When I misspelled the address of the site for Zone Labs (I typed “zonelarm.com” instead of “zonealarm.com”), a popular firewall, I got seven pop-ups (even when using PopUp Killer).

They advertised, in turn, a secured credit card, an online pharmacy, an outfit selling herbal remedies, a credit-approval site, an outfit selling loans on paychecks, an offer on computer speakers, and an offer from Miss Cleo to read tarot cards.

I noted that all these were direct marketers and that I wasn’t getting ads, but full home pages in new browser windows. Each time I closed one, I got another — such as an outfit claiming it could get me government aid, an offer of free insurance quotes, and then the tarot lady again.

The Zonelarm site is owned by RaveClub Berlin, I learned, and it seems to represent a conspiracy between domain-name speculators and some marketers totally lacking in ethics.

CERT has even issued an alert on the practice, in which it describes how to disable JavaScript. The problem is that the “solution” closes users off from many sites that depend on JavaScript, including (and this I found funny) the site that sells PopUp Killer.

But the main point, I think, is that this wouldn’t exist without the financial support of the direct marketers mentioned a few paragraphs ago (which is why I linked to them).

Direct marketers are a very diverse lot. Many are highly ethical. Some are personal friends. Thousands of them read this column. But direct marketing is, in general, a short-term game. You make an offer, you measure it, and you make another offer.

Branding (which some direct marketers engage in very successfully) is a different exercise. It’s long-term oriented. Brand managers care about the environments in which their ads appear, although they need more detailed intelligence on where they advertise, intelligence that can be difficult to obtain online.

For five years Internet advertisers drew brand ads with direct marketing metrics. Then the brands disappeared, and we were left with the direct marketers. That dependence can be a slippery slope, as I wrote here a few weeks ago.

That article was hammered, via email, by a respected direct marketer who felt I was criticizing the whole industry. Maybe it appeared that way (and if so, I apologize), but I think my point was important, which is why I’ve explored it further with you today.

I think giving in to every desire of direct marketers is a slippery slope for site publishers. I think it’s vital, for publishers and the industry, that we seek to build brands first. If that makes me a heretic, then throw me out from the church. But that’s the conclusion the evidence points to.

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