We (Will Not) Interrupt This Program

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Online users have spoken. They are weary of being popped up, popped under, interrupted and fooled by ads that hijack them from their desired destination to overblown Web sites that are a chore to leave. So they avoid the ads as they would a pushy salesman.


The online ad model was flawed in the first place. Advertisers always have wanted to fit snuggly within the editorial of a magazine or become an integral part of a television show. But what were online advertisers to do? Publishers, in their zeal to create stickiness, pushed ads off the tops and sides of their sites. They also shackled advertisers with puny k-size restrictions that barely supported a decent photo, much less a value proposition.


In response to declining click-through rates, ads tried harder to attract attention. From simple animations to those that commandeer the page, some ads behave like an ignored, hyperactive child.


Studies show, however, that ads aren't being overlooked, just kept at a distance. In a 2002 study by online media company Avenue A, online users had unexpectedly high unaided brand recall for even the simplest, basic 468x60 units.


In the same study, it was found that for those who clicked on ads that led to Web sites, 80 percent dropped off at the landing or splash page. Of the 20 percent who stayed, the exit slope was consistently steep for every additional page visited. This behavior tells us that those who express interest in an ad mainly seek the basics. They don't want to spend their time slogging through an overblown Web site for a few key bits of information.


Fortunately, the tools and trends are in place for a paradigm shift to an online ad model that lets the user dig deeper into an ad's promise without having to leave the site they're on. The ubiquity of Macromedia's Flash plug-in (ships standard with all browsers) and increasing availability of broadband creates an environment suitable to change the way onliners perceive and interact with ads.


These new ad units (I call them Adsites) combine the k-size footprint publishers require with the ability to stream in further information via an interaction requesting more information. It's not new technology. This is a new way to create and present online marketing messages.


Think of an online ad as a plot of undeveloped real estate. Under the old model, publisher size restrictions would limit an advertiser to building a single-story ranch. Under this new model, once the publisher's initial download is complete, if an advertiser can compel a user to interact with its ad, additional information can be streamed in.


The original promise of online advertising centered on the idea of more. Online could deliver what TV, print and even direct mail could not - the ability to take an interested prospect deeper into the product pitch. Demonstrate. Answer questions. Share with a friend. All while interacting with the brand. But the self-defeating click-and-hijack model conditioned onliners to avoid ad interaction.


The new unit reverses the reluctance to interact with an ad by giving onliners full control of the experience. They bring the functionality of a Web site into an ad initiated by an interaction. This strategy begins to shift the perception of online advertising on several levels: from an on or off proposition to a robust interaction; from interrupting to entertaining; and from reluctant to enthusiastic.


For advertisers, who want more than impressions, this ad unit lures customers into interacting with their offerings. Publishers, who want stickiness, keep eyeballs on their site.


Though the concept of richer-content ads has been tried before, most efforts required third parties for creation, or additional plug-ins for viewing. More than 98 percent of onliners can see ads produced using Macromedia's Flash.


As an authoring tool, Flash lets advertisers create units that can perform like Web sites. The ads are served through the same ad servers used for typical rich media ads. The ad unit also offers clients and publishers new, more meaningful metrics beyond click-through rates. Tags can reveal how much time someone spends on a particular section of an ad, or how many sections they visit before making an order.


As users embrace rich content, ad agencies and advertisers need to rethink the overall online marketing approach. Currently, online content is planned and produced with a Web site as its destination. Under this new model, planning could focus on content beginning (and usually ending) in the ads. This lets advertisers bring the transaction to the buyers, instead of the other way around. Web sites could be planned around repurposed, or enhanced, ad content.


Though TV is still the best choice to establish broad brand awareness, the online world is particularly suited for translating that awareness into action later.


As more advertisers swear off the click-and-hijack model in favor of a rich-content model that returns control to the user, more onliners will interact with ad offerings. This shift in ad perception should invigorate response rates.


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