Commentary: Can online advertising ever work?

Forget the fuss over pop-up ads. Online advertising fails because it is not available in true moments of leisure, says Inter@ctive Week columnist Matt Carolan.

From the recent series of online talkbacks and other comments I've heard about pop-up advertising, it seems that home security seller X10 is public enemy No 1.

At nearly every Web site you visit these days, an X10 ad pops up, with a picture of an attractive young woman in an ad for a tiny camera that is supposed to be for home security. Yeah, right, nudge, nudge, wink, wink. I have a feeling X10 has a good piece of the voyeur market.

Yet, many folks get more indignant and say they won't shop at X10 because of the pop-up ads that annoy them so.

Personally, I don't blame X10 for doing the online equivalent of standing on one's head to get your attention. After all, with static banner advertising falling out of favor because of its apparent impotence, Web sites now believe advertisement motion is the next big thing. (Plus, how many more people now know about X10 because they are reading articles about their devotion to the pop-up ad? Like the endless array of ads you have to navigate at the game and entertainment sites to accumulate points, you don't have to read an ad's content to have a branding experience.)

The notion that pop-up ads will work, however, could be debunked now that a new study shows that the ads may be ineffective in driving sales, which would confirming what seems obvious the moment you see those little critters. You slam them shut or download software to stop them completely because they get in the way of what you are looking at.

Yet, the motion commotion continues. Our own ZDNet, for example, has employed on the news home page a more ingenious approach of making the ads move around each time you return to the page. You go looking for today's top stories along the right hand margin, and next thing you know they have shifted to the left, with the ad moved somewhere new.

ZDNet has also employed ads that make noise for a while. First, it was when you passed the arrow over them, but now they just sound off unsolicited.

Will any of this work? It may be too early to tell. Advertising is tough to figure. What works is a function of both placement and the more intangible clever "content" that manages to get attention.

But I think online advertising will continue to languish because of external technological and personal factors.

Put simply, you come across online advertising in too restricted a personal setting--often when consuming information as part of work, or with other practical purposes in mind. I find the focus is very narrow when reading information in my home office. Yet, when I watch television at night, I have a reflex reaction that makes me want to click somewhere to get more information. Kind of like when I try to look in the rearview mirror that's not to my right when riding in the passenger seat of someone else's car.

I think online advertisers will have quite a wait for technology to move into its final frontier--the media-converged, networked home--before online advertising will really take off. The desktop Internet is not enough. Online advertising fails because it is not mobile, and not available in true moments of leisure.

Print advertising, for example, is much more likely to be appreciated in a relaxed setting. You can take it with you and read it any time, not simply when you decide to head over to the PC. (Yet, unlike banner ads, there's no direct way to calculate a click-through from a print ad to a sale.)

I'm sure industrial psychologists would have a lot more to say on the gestalt of online advertising. But it seems to me that until I can relax around the Internet, its ads will continue to have a hard time getting through.

Matt Carolan is online news editor of Interactive Week, and a columnist of Newsday.

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