Why Online Advertising Has to Get Better

I have some news for the online advertising industry: Online advertising is optional. I’m not talking about whether or not big advertisers will spend money; I’m talking about end users, average Web surfers, who don’t have to look at your ads if they don’t want to.

If you don’t believe me, check out Guidescope. According to the site, Guidescope “uses unique, patent-pending technology to filter advertisements and other unwanted graphics from Web pages, and to limit the ability of Web companies to track your surfing.” Guidescope is free.

While you’re at it, take a look at AdSubstract (“Subtract the Ads!”), whose PRO edition lets you block pop-ups, music, cookies, daughter windows, and animation. Or try WebWasher, which claims more than a thousand corporate customers.

Much has been made of the Internet’s ability to “empower” consumers. Theoretically, the Internet’s immense array of choices gives people the opportunity to search out value and creates a hypercompetitive marketplace of not only products but also attention. This makes consumers more demanding, both on and off the Web.

It’s not just theory. In the past decade, people have become more thrifty with their time and attention and have started to adopt products to take control of it. And it’s not just a Web phenomenon. Personal digital recorders, such as TiVo, allow television viewers to fast-forward through ads at the push of a button.

The use of Guidescope, AdSubstract, and other Web ad-reducing technologies isn’t very widespread (yet). But if we learned anything from examples such as Napster, widespread adoption of downloadable software can be extremely rapid.

So what does the online advertising industry need to do? There is only one solution: Make online advertising better. Most people accept that advertising is necessary to support the content that they want. But the onslaught of X10 pop-ups, online casino ads, and other downscale advertising is quickly wearing out our welcome.

Nearly two years ago, I wrote an article arguing that the Internet raises the bar for advertisers. Online advertising must do more than merely support valuable content; it has to provide value itself. Since Web ads are integrated into the Net’s user experience (which many people find less than intuitive), online ads need to do more than just get in the way.

There has been some great online advertising developed lately, which I have acknowledged in recent articles, such as the Jack Daniel’s animation on Playboy.com and the Friday afternoon Budweiser ads on CBS MarketWatch.com.

But every day, there seems to be more and more garbage on the Net. The depressed market for online advertising has devalued Web media to the point where more and more sites are littered with pay-for-performance (read: virtually free) advertising going after the sucker market. The attention of Web users has become devalued, so that on many sites there is no attempt to provide ads that would appeal to them.

No wonder people want to block ads. As ads get more intrusive — and this intrusiveness is not matched by an increase in entertainment value, interactivity, or the provision of relevant information — people get more and more turned off. You can’t blame them.

The Internet’s ability to target, provide interactivity, and efficiently deliver information on demand can make it an extremely effective advertising medium. I have witnessed hundreds of great successes. But this success is threatened by a parasitic class of ads that offer no value to users and none to the industry.

We need to be careful: If we lose the audience, it will be very hard to get it back.

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