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Why Is Online Advertising Different?

Posted on by arlen

Media Week writes about a new trend in online ads. The first question that occurs to me is: why?

The complaint is that people aren’t seeing the ads on web pages, so the proposed solution is “don’t let them see the web page until after they see the ad.” My first reaction: Your only synapse just died of loneliness, didn’t it?

Why should you expect web ads to be different from print ads? Few if any of us consciously look at print ads, either.

That fact was brought home to me years ago. Back in a previous life, before I got seduced by web building, I was a subscriber to Information Week, and they sent a researcher to my office to test the effectiveness of their ads. It was a simple study: take this copy of the magazine, hit your two favorite sections of it, then answer some questions.

The questions were about ads that had been placed around the stories, and I failed. I remembered the stories, no problem. But I didn’t remember seeing a single ad on the pages I looked at. I knew there were ads there, could even tell the researcher where they were on the pages, including the two-page ad spread in the middle of one story. I just didn’t remember what the ad was about. My mind had classed it as “irrelevant” and moved on.

Now we have made the discovery people do the same thing on web pages, and somehow it means traditional web ads are bad, and we need a more intrusive model (intrusive is my word, not theirs, though their word — interruptive — is hardly less pejorative).

All this proves is they Just Don’t Get It. My visit on the web isn’t about them, it’s about me. I want some information, or a product, or a service. Drop a video ad in front of me to block me, and I’ll just move on to the next site on my search list. Do it often enough and I may just stop coming to their site at all.

The main purpose of advertising is to give me a good feeling about the product/service, right? Well, like most people these days, I already think I waste too much time looking for things on the web. Delay me in this quest, and just how do they suppose I’ll manage to come up with a good feeling for them?

The ad agency doesn’t care; they’ve already got their money, and in any case, I won’t hold it against them. But just what will be my disposition towards HP, for example, if I’m detoured from the information I’m seeking because the ad agency felt their ad was more important than my search? If I’m nice, all I’ll do is make sure their sales rep gets needlessly delayed in my waiting room for a few hours before not making a sale.

The arrogance of you advertisers is one of the wonders of the modern age. No, your message is *not* more important than my search for information. No, you do not have the right to interrupt my business to try and sell me something I’m not looking for at the moment. You wouldn’t think of grabbing random passersby off the street and forcing them against their will into a small room to pitch a product to them. Why do you think I’ll take to hijacking my web search and holding it for ransom any better?

Your excuse is “It’s like a TV commercial.” No, it’s not. It would be if what I was coming to see was a video. But you’re putting it in the Wall Street Journal, not a video site!

Still, if that’s what you want to do, I guess I can’t stop you. Oh, wait a minute. It’s my computer. I get to choose the sites it goes to and the software that runs on it. I give this new trend 30 days before blocker software is available that redirects the intrusive ad into nothingness.

See? That’s the trouble with being intrusive. With the print-style ad placement, I usually don’t see the ads, but occasionally, I’ll have a look. I’m not always single-mined about the search for information. Sometimes I’m looking for something new and different, so I’ll deliberately look at the banners or the page ads. I can do that because I have the choice.

That’s what clever and well placed ads get you. They get you my attention, when I’m in the mood to give it. And from that, they get you my business.

I suspect I’m not alone in choosing to look at ads occasionally. But take that choice away from us, and we’ll choose “never” over “always” every single time. Ok, so maybe that means we lose once in a while, when we miss something we would have looked at otherwise.

But you, advertiser? You’ll lose every single time. And so will you, site operator, as inescapable intrusive ads encourage us to find (or even create) other outlets.

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August 2009
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