The lowdown on pop-ups

Consumers hate pop-up ads, yet some marketers continue to insist that pop-ups are just another ad format. That's just semantics, says Adrian Mello: Go ahead. Offend potential customers.

In case you hadn't noticed, there's been a small storm brewing around pop-up ads.

They're those pesky ad windows that suddenly appear onscreen, superimposing themselves on other open windows. A number of Internet advertisers including X-10 Wireless, Orbitz, and Providian have become notorious for the way they barrage consumers with pop-ups.

Needless to say, consumers hate pop-ups. Pop-up ads were found to be the most annoying ad format by 74 percent of U.S. consumers, according to a Valentine Radford survey. Consumers found pop-ups far more annoying than the next largest offenders, including banners (9 percent), television ads (6 percent), e-mail (5 percent), and radio (2 percent.)

Consumers' hatred of pop-up ads is particularly noteworthy given that pop-ups only represented 2 percent of all ads served between the months of January and July 2002, according to a recent Nielsen/NetRatings survey. A backlash was inevitable.

Pop goes the weasel
Last summer iVillage announced that it would eliminate pop-ups in response to complaints from its audience, 92.5 percent of whom found them to be the most frustrating feature of the Web. Shortly thereafter, Earthlink--one of the nation's largest ISPs with nearly 5 million customers--declared war on pop-ups by offering its subscribers free software capable of suppressing them. Last month, AOL announced that it was suspending sales of pop-ups to outside advertisers.

A whole new range of products has also appeared to squelch pop-ups, like Ecom Software's PopUpBuster, Panicware's Pop-Up Stopper, and Sureshot's Stop-the-Pop.

That hasn't stopped some companies from using pop-ups. Pop-ups must be somewhat effective for these advertisers to swim in the face of the consumer backlash. A number of prominent sites, such as the New York Times, CBS Marketwatch, and Yahoo continue to serve pop-up ads. Of course, that could change if consumers start gravitating to competing sites such as Earthlink and AOL.

What's the big deal?
Some marketers wonder what the big deal is. They argue that there isn't much difference between pop-ups and other forms of advertising. Most advertising is intrusive by nature--that's what it takes to get consumers' attention.

However, there is a significant difference between Internet pop-ups and traditional print, television, and radio ads. Pop-ups are real buttinskis. They can appear at completely unexpected moments, abruptly forcing users to interact--usually by closing the pop-up window--just to re-engage with whatever it was they were doing in the first place.

Unlike pop-ups, broadcast and print ads are timed and structured in a way that respects the audience's attention. Radio ads rarely break into the middle of songs, TV ads only interrupt programming at planned breaks, and print ads only confront readers when they flip pages.

Let the dust settle
Wherever you sit on the pop-up debate, there's not much point in being a pioneer with pop-ups or any other exceptionally intrusive ad format. "It's still not understood which Internet ad formats are suitable and which ones work because the medium is still so new," says eMarketer senior analyst David Hallerman. Until the dust settles, there are a few things you can do to avoid embarrassing your company and unnecessarily aggravating customers:

Don't be a hypocrite. Both iVillage and AOL said they would continue to expose their customers to in-house pop-ups. That means they must still think that pop-ups are an effective advertising tool, but one they want to reserve for themselves. Earthlink has been making hay with this in prominently placed print ads that point out the huge number of Time Warner companies that can still do pop-ups on AOL. Basically, what's good for the goose is good for the gander. If you don't want to be ridiculed for pop-ups, avoid them altogether.

Monitor advertising partners for compliance. Don't assume that anti-pop-up policy is enough. Toyota had such a policy, but last year visitors to Ford's site were greeted with a pop-up ad offering to redirect them to Toyota.com. Make sure that whoever administers your media placements understands and complies with your advertising policy.

Set limits. If you must use pop-ups, at least limit their intrusiveness. You can begin by limiting their frequency so that consumers only see them once per site visit rather than being continually bombarded with pop-ups during the same visit. Only use pop-ups that target users with specific interests. For example, only use travel pop-ups on sites or channels devoted to travelers.

It's usually a big mistake to provoke customers' ill will. There's a real risk of tarnishing your company's brand--particularly if competitors attack you for it. The smartest thing to do is to simply stay away from pop-ups until the situation sorts itself out. Why run the risk of being labeled a 'pop tart'?

What do you think about pop-up ads? TalkBack below or e-mail Adrian.