The first time I witnessed how comfortable our industry was telling stories in public based on half-truths was at the iMedia Summit in Arizona in 2002. During one session Joe Apprendi, who is now the accomplished CEO of Collective Media and the owner of a great smile, took the stage in front of hundreds of sellers and buyers to show off his company’s wares at the time -- a rich-media company aptly named Eyeblaster.
He claimed his company’s rich-media ads were more effective than other display ads that didn’t make him rich. As evidence, he showed an ad unit he had sold and served for Tropicana. The ad appeared from nowhere and covered almost the entire home page of iVillage.com in the form of an empty glass that gets filled with orange juice poured from a container of Tropicana. “This ad generated a 19% lift in brand awareness according to a Dynamic Logic study, and delivered an 11.5% click-through rate,” he told a crowd who knew the average CTR at the time hovered around 1%.
Sitting in the audience and at my first industry conference, I instinctively raised my hand and someone walked over and handed me a microphone. With the fear of speaking yelling in my ears, I introduced myself and mentioned where I worked (IGN.com). Then I ranted how this increased click-through rate represented a cry for help from users trying to close the ad, not more interest in the product.
I am sure my verbal articulation of this thought was awkward at best and that no question was actually phrased. As a result, no answer was needed and Joe sort of smiled and continued with the rest of his presentation, while I sat wondering what trouble I was in if my boss found out what I'd said.
At that time, online publishers sold ads that popped up or floated over content despite knowing their users hated them, because this furious trying to close what blocked the user’s view boosted the total click count. Publishers would then spin a tale claiming to have delivered on the campaign’s performance goals, and buyers would slap a cover on that story and read it to their clients to prove delivery on their promise. It behooved no one to point out the common sense buried in the footnotes.
It’s been almost nine years since this conference, and absolutely nothing has changed. We’re still telling our clients the same half-truths, as seen in this piece in Mobile Marketer: Rich media produce results for mobile ad campaigns, winning click-through rates as much as 455% higher than banner and other static ads, says a report from Jumptap. "When compared to static banners, rich media offers a dynamic way to engage with consumers and promote brand awareness," particularly on their smartphones and tablets, said Paran Johar, Jumptap chief marketing officer.
Are you serious, Paran? A 455% increase in CTR because your ads are that engaging -- or is it because users “click on mobile ads” by accident, when attempting to increase the font size of the content with their thumb and pointer finger, and your ads get in their way?
Web site publishers may no longer sell pop-ups like the old days but instead sell “push-down” units that expand without being asked to. The push-down unit is a more polite pop-up in that it moves content down rather than covering it up, but it has the same effect: it induces anger from users, who now need to click on a small “x” to get rid of this annoyance, often missing their target and resulting in a click-through. In the case of these push-down units, both the number of times the ad expands, and the resulting number of click-throughs, support a lie of greater engagement while burying the reality of consumer animosity.
So who’s to blame? The buyer who forces the publisher to accept these ad unit conditions or jeopardize losing the buy, or the publisher who caves on running them while burying their users’ interests in the dust? Or perhaps the IAB should be blamed for not creating standards that prevent any ad from crossing its boundaries unless the user clearly invites it over. These entities are all accomplices, but it is the advertiser who commits the crime.
Clients signing off on these buys know these ads would annoy the hell out of them, but pretend their consumers would enjoy them. So here is the new rule going forward. If an advertiser insists on running rich media that expands automatically, covering or pushing content away from a user on a publisher’s site, then the advertiser has to run those same ads on their own site.
End of story.