When Bad Ads Happen to Good People

When not hard at work crafting well-reasoned articles on how online advertising will make the world a better place to live (it could happen!), I teach college students how to use and understand interactive production and online tools.

One class, An Introduction to Ecommerce, covers the fundamentals of creating effective online stores. Of the various issues I discuss with the students, one is the need for successful online advertising approaches.

As I sat down to grade midterm exams, I was surprised several students wrote comments regarding how much they hated pop-up ads on Web sites. It was surprising because nowhere in the exam did I ask an opinion on any type of ad. Yet, I was reading bile and vitriol-filled comments not exactly singing the praises of this ad format. Didn’t they get it? Didn’t these people read pop-up ads where the most effective ad format since… since… the early days of click-through banners?

A report last year from Statistical Research, Inc. (SRI) said pop-up ads were 50 percent more likely to be noticed than banners. It also noted they are 100 percent more likely to be considered intrusive.

Nearly half (49 percent) of active Internet users polled “agreed strongly” pop-up ads get noticed (versus 33 percent for banner ads); but 62 percent also felt strongly that pop-ups interfere with the use of the Web (31 percent for banners).

Hatred of pop-up or interstitial ads has generated a wide range of products designed to eliminate them. Some advertisers have devised fairly sleazy ways of getting consumers to unknowingly install pop-up ads that appear periodically on their hard drives.

For advertisers, does the advantage of being seen counter the disadvantage of being despised? If the average surfer would rather eat a rat than buy an X10 camera, has the campaign been successful? The paradoxical marketing effect is a real one some advertisers might wisely consider. Just because you got 1 million people to see your ad doesn’t mean you’ll sell enough product to justify the fact most of them want to see your head on a pike!

The abuse of pop-ups has lead to consumer behavior that includes reflexively closing the ad window before it can even be glanced at. Does this count as an effective impression?

I’ll go out on a limb here and say pop-up and pop-under advertising will eventually find its place in online advertising history. What comes next?

The reality of online marketing is when we get offers for products we don’t want, it clutters up our lives. To make online adverting more effective, new ad models that brand, provide the consumer with relevant information, entertain, or provide something in exchange for time spent with the ad need to be able to do so without constantly punishing the customer for being online.

For years, AOL has successfully incorporated a format that may find widespread use and new life on other parts of the Web. I call it the “gatekeeper” ad. Its general function is to place itself between the user and something the user wants access to. Yes, it can interrupt the flow of information and be considered an annoyance, but consider the TV ad model. We may not like TV ads, but we recognize that without them the programs being interrupted wouldn’t be there in the first place (TiVo excepted). TV spots are a necessary evil, and one we’ve grown accustomed to. Overall, we see how the ad benefits us. We rarely swear at the set. Sometimes, we use the break to check how much ice cream is left in the freezer.

Gatekeeper ads can remind users advertising is a necessary part of the transaction. “You help us, we’ll give you access.” The result is bills get paid, users get access to content they want, and the advertiser gets a 100 percent interaction rate. It beats having to buy an annual subscription to a site to access it.

Another format following a similar model is used on sites like Pogo. Pogo is a gaming site and is a great place to meet people, maybe win a little money, and find somebody to play Hearts or Backgammon with any time of the day.

When a player enters a game room, he first must wait 15 seconds for an ad to clear. No biggie. It’s a time to either twiddle your thumbs or look at the ad. When the ad has timed out, the player can start beating on total strangers. From time to time during play, an intermission occurs (with more ad content). It’s over in 30 seconds. There’s no hue and cry surrounding the practice. Players understand the exchange is necessary. Not a bad trade, overall.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Advertising in any form won’t please the masses. If it can offer a fair exchange for the time it costs the consumer, it just might gain acceptance.

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