Annoying Web Ads Redux

There are more effective and less annoying alternatives to pop-up ads.

In a recent column ("Pop-up Ads Bad for Business"), I discussed a study by Bunnyfoot Universality showing that pop-up ads on Web sites can cause site visitors to refuse to do business with the company advertising in the pop-up and to stop visiting the site altogether. I received dozens of responses from readers fed up with pop-up ads. Sure enough, many said they are now using pop-up blocking tools or have stopped visiting sites that use pop-ups heavily.

I also received numerous responses from Web site managers. Many said they dont like pop-up ads but felt they were necessary to generate revenue for their sites. But even the respondents who were most defensive about pop-ups value realized that the writing is probably on the wall, as more and more users adopt pop-up blockers and as applications and operating systems start to block them by default.

One of the questions in response to my column was: "If pop-up ads are ineffective, what type of Web site advertising does work?" If I could answer this question with 100 percent accuracy, I would be much too busy living the lifestyle of the rich and famous to write this column. But there is some data that companies can use to find out what type of advertising would work best for their sites.

An excellent resource is the DoubleClick study available at 2003yearinonline_0403.pdf. This study details the growth in online advertising last year and does a good job of breaking down which type of online advertising works and which doesnt. (The study clearly shows that pop-up ads are not as effective as they used to be.)

One of the main themes that can be gleaned from the DoubleClick study is that when it comes to Web advertising, bigger is better. DoubleClick found that big skyscraper ads (essentially tall, column-size ads) and leaderboard ads (big, usually centrally placed boxes) are among the most effective Web ads in terms of generating revenue. Double- Click also is very high on rich-media ads, such as those developed in Flash.

Based on my personal experience and discussions with readers and site operators, I agree with many of DoubleClicks findings, although with some caveats.

A big ad is generally fine with most visitors, as long as it doesnt get too ridiculous (that is, bigger than all the regular content on a page). Rich media can also be welcome, as long as it stays within the confines of the advertising box. Once it leaves that space and impedes site visitors ability to read the content on the site, it crosses the line and becomes potentially more annoying than pop-up ads.

Bunnyfoot, the company that did the study on how pop-ups annoy users, sent me videos of the user tests it performed. Several of the videos showed where on the Web page users were looking, and, in several cases, it was clear that users were constantly scanning the entire page. This means that in terms of catching site visitors interest, it might not matter much where an ad is. Site operators and advertisers have to be realistic about what will make readers click on an ad. Often, it has nothing whatsoever to do with how it is presented or where it is on a page.

For example, Ive been completely engrossed with car advertisements lately. Wherever I see one—in a magazine or newspaper or on TV or the Web—I jump right to it. Is it because car ads have become much better? No, its because Im in the market for a new car. Once I buy one, Ill completely ignore car ads again.

This is true for most people. If the ad is for something they want, theyll click it no matter where it is. If not, it might as well be blank space.

A common tenet of advertising is that a good ad can make people want something they didnt know they wanted. While this may be true of soft drinks and movies, its not true of many things, including servers and enterprise applications.

So if your Web site is currently relying on pop-ups, you can definitely find replacement ad formats that will be more effective and less annoying to visitors and potential customers.

But remember the lesson of pop-ups: People will put up with a lot when it comes to Web site advertising, but if you cross the annoyance line, the visitors and customers who leave frustrated and angry may never come back.

Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at

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