When Is a Pop-Up Not a Pop-Up?

With all the public ire now aimed at pop-ups, it seems everyone in the Internet business is rushing to distance themselves from the formats. First iVillage said it would eliminate third-party pop-ups. (Isn’t it interesting how nothing’s said about house ads? Even more interesting is how I still see third-party pop-ups on the site.) Then, AOL followed suit, vowing to eliminate third-party pop-ups on its service. ISP EarthLink even ran a TV ad campaign aiming to demonstrate its superiority by touting its distribution of pop-up blocking software to users.

It’s no wonder the industry is shying away from pop-ups. A recent survey by GartnerG2 found that pop-up ads are the “most irritating,” with 78.3 percent of respondents calling the ads “very annoying.” Banner ads garnered a 49 percent rating on the “very annoying” scale, and interstitial ads were considered the least annoying, with only 43 percent rating them “very annoying.”

“We did have a separate line for pop-unders,” said Denise Garcia, author of the report, titled “Unpopular Pop-Ups Won’t Stop.” “Seventy-five percent of the people found pop-unders annoying; 78.3 percent found pop-ups annoying. Users don’t discriminate between a pop-up and a pop-under.”

As the reaction to user annoyance continues to spread, the company in the most difficult position right now may be Unicast, the venerable rich media technology player that made its name with a format it calls the Superstitial. Or it used to be known as the Superstitial, anyway. Now the company is calling it “In Between-Page — Superstitial.” What’s the problem? Well, to put it simply, the Superstitial pops up.

Unicast would contend, however, that its product fits into the “least annoying” category mentioned above, that of the interstitial. Because of its “polite loading” technology — which means the ad loads while the person is viewing page one, then appears without delay when the person clicks to page two — Unicast argues the Superstitial is an interstitial (appearing “between” pages), and not a pop-up. Though it’s true polite loading is significantly easier on Internet users with slower connections, anything that pops up is a pop-up, in the mind of the average Joe Internet user.

“It’s important to realize that they don’t distinguish between pop-ups and pop-unders,” said Garcia. “That, to me, just says that they’re lumping everything into a category. If rich media ad developers are going to develop new ad formats, they should avoid those that launch a separate browser window…. Anything that’s in a separate browser window seems to be more annoying.”

Is an Interstitial a Pop-Up?

So, now that we’ve determined what a pop-up is, at least according to average Internet users, let’s tackle the thorny — and oft-discussed — issue of what an interstitial is. Interstitials, as defined by the Gartner survey, are “the ones that open when a user goes from one Web page to another and disappear unless clicked on.” Notice there’s no indication that a separate browser window might appear. That’s the user-experience description of an interstitial, and I’d say full-page formats such as the Ultramercial, recently used by Salon.com, or the FPBA Commflash, used by NYTimes.com, would fit the description.

Discriminating Internet users — people in the industry — might believe the Superstitial fits the description of an interstitial. But that’s because they’re looking at the serving technology, such as the polite download, rather than the user experience. I believe most people, not knowing about the underlying technology, would place it in the pop-up (i.e., “very annoying”) category, simply because it launches in a separate browser window.

Unicast disagrees, as you might expect. I spoke to Allie Savarino, vice president of marketing for Unicast, in preparation for writing this column, and she admitted that pop-ups pose a threat to the industry. Of course, the Superstitial, in her mind, isn’t categorized as a pop-up.

“All of the backlash about pop-ups and pop-unders keeps advertisers from coming to the medium or from spending more,” she said. “It doesn’t give us the chance to make the case that you can do television-like advertising online.”

It’s understandable that, despite the criticism of pop-ups, Unicast is defending the Superstitial. In December 2000, the company was awarded two patents relating to the technology used to serve the ads, and it has spent legal fees and corporate resources sending “cease and desist” letters to rivals it said infringed on its patents. (It later spent more dough to acquire one of those rivals, Enliven.)

I wonder, though, whether Unicast is holding onto a technology that no longer has much meaning for the industry. A pop-up, at one time, was a novelty. Now it’s an annoyance. The polite download, while critically important in a dial-up world, may be losing its cachet as more affluent (read: more desirable to advertisers) Internet users switch to broadband.

That’s not to say interstitials (and I mean the in-the-same-browser-window variety) are any better. Right now, they’re only mildly annoying, but the format isn’t used very much, so it hasn’t had time to raise user ire.

Even user ire isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though companies seem to be scrambling to position themselves as responsive to their users’ desires. Pop-ups have been shown to be effective, and certainly an argument can be made in their favor. Still, Unicast, especially now that it has acquired Enliven, has quite a few other formats up its sleeve, and it’s time to pull them out.

As an industry, we’re still facing constant change. The experienced veterans, to maintain their roles as leaders, must acknowledge the online advertisement environment has changed — and I don’t mean only economically. We can’t just hang on to what worked in the past, and we need to see the situation clearly and describe it honestly. We need to tell it like it is, and call a pop-up a pop-up.

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