What’s More Effective and Less Annoying?

As an avid observer of interactive marketing practices, I probably have a higher annoyance threshold than your average Internet user. I don’t mind page-takeover ads and am always interested in the latest whiz-bang techniques advertisers experiment with — even if they occasionally crash my computer. Consumers seem to have significantly less patience with online advertising — especially certain formats.

That’s why many publishers are scrambling to distance themselves from pop-ups. Consumer annoyance with ads served in that manner has been confirmed by any number of studies, including a GarterG2 report that found 78.3 percent of those surveyed felt pop-ups “very annoying.” (Pop-unders generated a similar annoyance level.) What didn’t they find annoying? Well, 49 percent found banner ads “very annoying,” but only 43 percent of respondents rated interstitials “very annoying.” Sentiments like these are behind recent experiments with interstitials.

That brings up the question: What is an interstitial? Well, here are a few definitions of what I’m talking about:

It could be argued Unicast’s Superstitials are interstitials (because they appear at the time a user navigates away from one page to another). But let’s set them aside for the moment because they also pop up, which users seem to dislike.

The mild levels of annoyance people express regarding interstitials may be due to their relative rarity. It’s tough to break out numbers on their prevalence, given the technology limitations and differing definitions. The IAB’s most recent breakdown of revenues by format, released last October, showed interstitials garnered just 3 percent of total revenue. I went back and forth with AdRelevance seeking statistics for this column, but the company wasn’t able to pull any numbers for the category, perhaps because of measurement technology limitations. Still, if anecdotal evidence is an indication, increasingly more advertisers and publishers are giving the format a shot. Following are three publishers’ experiences.

Salon.com and the Ultramercial

No one’s revealing numbers, but I’d have to deduce the four-page-long Ultramercial performs well for Salon, as well as for advertisers Mercedes and Discovery Networks. Why else would the publisher shift its entire business model and require nonpaying users to view an Ultramercial to view original content? (Previously, only access to premium content was restricted to subscribers.)

“The motivator [for the business model change] was clearly that… what we were doing [previously] was not working,” said Patrick Hurley, Salon’s senior VP of business operations. “The three constituencies that make up this relationship — the publisher, the advertiser, and the reader — never fully felt that they were getting a fair deal. Someone was always feeling that they were getting the short end of the stick. This [new model], in my mind, is the fairest and most equitable model for all concerned.”

The Ultramercial is a multi-page ad, generally utilizing rich media, that requires users to click through the pages. This guarantees people actually look at the ad (rather than take a TV-style powder room break). Once finished, users are granted a “day pass” to Salon’s content. They won’t get another Ultramercial on that day.

Salon has an advantage on the annoyance front. It’s long had a subscription model and has “trained” its readers to value its content. Consumer reaction so far, according to Salon, has been overwhelmingly positive. Folks realize viewing the Ultramercial is what pays for content. Of course, that’s the implicit deal with any ad-sponsored content. The Ultramercial makes that contract explicit.

Salon’s is the most dramatic use of the interstitial format, but it’s hardly alone in giving it a try.

SportsLine.com and SuperBowl.com

As the Super Bowl neared, the folks at SportsLine.com, which runs SuperBowl.com for the NFL, agonized over how best to highlight Cadillac’s sponsorship of the MVP award. The automaker couldn’t have a front-page takeover spot, which might overshadow Pepsi’s sponsorship. It was concluded an interstitial (a.k.a. a “transitional ad”) — appearing whenever a SuperBowl.com visitor clicked a link to leave the front page — was the next best thing. It was the first time any SportsLine-produced site experimented with the format. Bruce Jaret, VP of sales marketing services and operations, said it probably won’t be the last.

According to ad-supported software company Gator, which kept tabs on its user base during and after the big game, 13 percent of SuperBowl.com’s viewers clicked on the interstitial. Unaided recall of the Cadillac sponsorship was 24 percent. Aided recall was 47 percent. Additionally, Gator said thousands of its users typed in the URL for Cadillac’s home page within an hour of viewing the SuperBowl.com site.

SportsLine.com proceeded with caution, frequency-capping the interstitial at once per user for the life of the creative. It added a link with text reading “About this Ad Format” to introduce visitors to the format and solicit feedback.

NYTimes.com and Adaptation

For NYTimes.com, an innovator in online advertising, interstitials are nothing new. It began experiments early last summer and most recently ran a campaign for “Adaptation,” the Columbia Pictures film starring Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep. Implementation is similar to that employed by SportsLine.com, but Jason Krebs, NYTimes.com VP of sales, seemed less thrilled about the format than other players with whom I spoke.

“When clients see this as being a part of their strategy, we’re more than willing to work with them,” he said. “We mention it. We don’t specifically sell it. There hasn’t been a specific drive to sell interstitials.”

The Most Important Ad Format

Judging by a relative dearth of interest (perhaps two or three campaigns have run since NYTimes.com began offering the format), can we conclude there’s little advertiser interest? It’s early yet. Though the interstitial has been around almost since the beginning of online advertising, several factors may now be bringing it to the fore:

  • Speedier connections

  • Advances in Flash and other rich media technology
  • Increasing consumer awareness of the implicit contract between advertiser, publisher, and reader
  • Publisher need for increased revenue
  • Advertiser need to cut through the clutter
  • Backlash against pop-up formats

From what Ultramercial president and CEO Dana Jones says, looks like we’ll see a lot more Ultramercials online. The company is in talks with a number of big-name publishers. Industry-watcher Rick LeFurgy, a partner at WaldenVC and member of the IAB’s executive committee, called it “the most important ad format on the Web right now.”

If you’re a marketer, perhaps it’s time to try an interstitial. If you’re a publisher, maybe it’s time to quietly experiment with the format. Carefully gauge reader reaction, of course. Be careful not to let the interstitial become the next scourge of online advertising. Use it responsibly and respectfully. It already has one big advantage — it doesn’t pop up.

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