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Aim to be listened to, not just heard.

There is an epidemic in the advertising industry today: the constant progression of mega-phone like display advertisement methods online. All of a sudden we have ads that pop-up, pop-under, follow us down the page, shake, blink, expand, auto-play and launch on a delay. We encounter hidden close buttons, questions that must be answered to close ads and a general lack respect for why we likely visited the page in which said ad is encountered.

Why have online display ads gotten so aggressive?

For years, banner blindness has been discussed ad nauseum. Advertisers constantly worry that they are paying for eyeballs that don’t even register their brand impression, so over time new tactics have been developed to combat this ailment. The sad news is that the approach being taken is the opposite of what one might expect from identification of the problem.

Unfortunately, the belief seems to be that if people are building immunity against looking at banners, we need to force the ads closer to their eyeballs. Meaning that the tactics developed to combat banner blindness are even less sensitive to the needs and wants of consumers than their passive historical partners. So what fuels the production of tactics that are openly discussed as annoying and obtrusive?

I believe it is because we are still not clear about what an online ad impression means and how it fits into overall brand health. More so, as advertisers, we are less than willing to ask ourselves the most important questions of all:

#1: Is a forced eyeball on my ad a happy eyeball?

Forcing a brand impression may actually make consumers like you less, not more. This has been proved in studies and anecdotes from the wild, yet the numbers don’t play nicely in arguing this point. Typically the click-through rates of intrusive display ads are 2 to 3 times that of more passive display ad tactics. But why?

#2: Is every click-through an intended click-through?

Have you ever accidently clicked through on a hover ad trying to close it? Have you ever been tricked into clicking through because of the funky click target of the close button? Have you ever encountered a question-based close mechanism like “I love Cupcakes!” vs. “I hate Cupcakes!” I mean, c’mon — who would ever click a button that says “I hate Cupcakes!”?

I believe that these less-measurable factors are the reasons why these ads “perform so well” when compared to the polite banner ads sitting quietly in the sidebars of content pages.

And when you look at the ways ads are produced, managed, distributed and measured – you quickly see that the key performance indicators vary wildly from party to party, leaving a very segmented measurement of success.

  • The Consumer: Wants information, or to complete a task as quickly and efficiently as possible.
  • The Brand: Wants results from their investments, and often needs the other parties involved to define what that result is and how to best attain it.
  • The Agency: Wants people to interact with the brand. And they want to convert impressions to action.
  • The Media Buyer: Want eyeballs, lots and lots of eyeballs.

IMHO without a common goal and without knowledge of true consumer behavior — aggressive tactics like those discussed above will continue to be produced and touted as successful.

#3: How can we do better?
Look for more targeted, contextual ways to place more passive ads. The likelihood of clicking on an ad does increase with relevance, and the technology is out there to really make for relevancy based advertising decisions.

Focus intrusive ads in situations with high entertainment return or where speed to information isn’t the goal. Playing a hover ad as pre-roll for a free broadcast quality show for example is much less aggressive and more expected than playing that same ad when looking to quickly get the local weather.

Put yourself in their shoes. Stop reviewing your ads in flat comps, storyboards and animatics. Think about the experience of encountering that ad. How easy is it to dismiss? How intrusive might it be to encounter in public? Is there anything about your execution that could be described as “sneaky”, “annoying” or “intrusive”?

Look deeper into your metrics. Don’t allow the media buyer to deliver a click-through rate that is immediately dismissed when paired with a spike in bounce rate. Make sure that the traffic being driven is quality lead traffic, not just users on the tail end of an “Oh crap, I didn’t mean to click that” moment.

Stop Tricking People. Think carefully about the affect your KPI for this campaign has on your overall brand health. While getting people to click may be the goal today, remember that one moment of making someone feel foolish is seldom undone by any amount of good marketing after the fact.

Thanks for reading.

This post is the 6th of a series: UX Rules for Advertising Agencies.