Pop-up Ads, Rich Media Can Backfire, Study Finds

A study of Internet user habits by a British Web site usability firm found that pop-up ads, including interruptive rich media placements, often resulted in users having a negative image of the advertiser and Web site publisher.

Bunnyfoot Universality tested the reactions of 36 Internet users, using an eye-tracking system and subsequent interviews, when visiting two British personal finance Web sites that serve pop-ups. It found that despite the online advertising industry's excitement over the potential of rich media ads for grabbing consumers' attention, users did not differentiate between them and the more-vilified pop-up ad format.

The study found that 50 percent of the pop-up ads were closed before they opened and 35 percent were ignored. On average, users closed the pop-ups in 2.5 seconds, with the advertiser's company name and logo seen just 2 percent of the time. All 36 users interviewed expressed negative reactions to the ads, particularly when they blocked site content.

Earlier research by Advertising.com showed pop-up ads garner click-through rates 13 times higher than regular banner ads, yet consumer dissatisfaction with them has speeded the deployment of pop-up blockers through Internet search toolbars. The biggest challenge for pop-up ads will be when Microsoft introduces the new version of its Internet Explorer browser with a pop-up-blocking feature included.

Pop-ups' share of online ads has declined. Online ad serving firm DoubleClick reported that last quarter it served 21 percent fewer 250×250-pixel ads, the most prevalent format for pop-ups, compared with a year ago. Pop-ups comprised 2 percent of all ads it served, the company said. Nielsen//NetRatings said pop-up ads accounted for 6.3 percent of all ad impressions in January, down from 8.7 percent six months earlier.

Rich media is widely held as one major growth engine for online advertising, thanks to the improved response rates and brand recall it offers. Last year, it accounted for 11 percent of all online ad spending, according to Jupiter Research; by 2008, it is expected to make up 39 percent.

But the rise of some interruptive forms of rich media advertising, such as the 30-second Web commercials rolled out by Unicast on 15 major sites in January, could prompt consumer backlash. Bunnyfoot found that users were more likely to close regular pop-up ads and ignore rich media units. The study did not measure brand recall, which other studies report is greatly helped by rich media units.

The Internet Advertising Bureau formed a committee to devise guidelines for deploying pop-up ads. Its UK counterpart issued guidelines in September, recommending that sites serve no more than three intrusive ads, including intrusive rich media, to a visitor every 30 minutes. The IAB committee does not plan to address rich media.

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