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01/18/2011 The Elephant in the Online Ad Room

Since I’ve started watching TV shows online I’ve noticed something about advertising. Some shows run 15 to 30 second TV ads every 12 minutes, just like on regular broadcast TV. Others bring you out of full screen to an interactive ad, that usually include a small video of…a TV ad.

The interactive ads allow you to actually do something (Discover Card has a memory game, for example) as opposed to the TV ads. However I find myself much more irritated at the interactive ads than the TV spots. (My eight-year-old son, on the other hand, would rather stop and play on almost every interactive ad). Those interactive ads in online TV make me get up and click once or twice to get back to my full screen TV. And that makes me hate them, no matter how interactive they are.

When I’m watching a story on TV (which is what every program is) I want to get to the end of it. I want to find out what happens. I don’t want interruptions getting in the way. Broadcast TV wrote an implicit contract with us viewers: if we wanted to see a conclusion, we had to tolerate the interruptions.

DVRs have started to break down that contract (thank you Skip Button on Dish Network!). We still tolerate that contract in print magazines, for example, allowing ourselves to linger over the ads before flipping the page to the next article. On the Web, though, we brook no interruptions! We’re on the Web to be IN control, and we expect things to go FAST.

We talk a lot about contextual and relevant online advertising, behaviorally targeted so people will pay attention. But, for the most part, we’re not paying attention because we’re paying attention to something else. Advertising has worked in the past due, to the most part, for its interruptive ability. But on the Web, with the exception of interstitials, we’re trying NOT to interrupt anyone.  Maybe it’s time to rethink that.

Right now, we position Web ads to not get in the way of the flow of the Web page. Publishers offer positions all around the content, in places where they’re very easy to ignore.  After reading lots of UX articles, for example, we know that the prime real estate spots are not the spots we find online ads. Why not? Maybe its’ time for publishers to give advertisers the prime viewing spots on their pages. We’ll get to the content eventually, since that’s what we really want.

If publishers aren’t willing to give up the best real estate, perhaps they should consider different ways of interrupting the content. Increasing the size of the in-text advertising that breaks up copy blocks might allow people to scroll through the ad, but still put it in a place where people will actually have to look at it. Whether they interact with it is another question.

(By the way, for the sake of this argument, I’m leaving out the issue of quality of the online ads. While that helps, I don’t think that’s the big roadblock).

When Sweden introduced commercial TV in the 80s and 90s, they made the stations put all of the ads either before or after the show. Rather than interstitials, perhaps that’s the place to put the ads, as a price of entry to the content?

Face it, most of us don’t want ads, we want the content we came for. But online advertising will continue to underperform if we don’t, at least, make it easier for someone to notice and interact with it. And yes, context and relevance and targeting help make online advertising better. But they’re not enough.

Until publishers give advertisers their prime real estate online, just like they do offline, we’ll be talking about how this platform under delivers for years to come.



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