I Am Not An Animal, I Am A Human Being!

by , Sep 19, 2002, 12:00 AM
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I have to say, I felt a little like John Merrick after last week’s article ran and the posts and email started to come in.

[I’m sorry, Cory, but I promise this is going to be it on the pop-up thing.]

Boy, this pop-up/pop-under thing has gotten out of hand. Not only have there been more articles on the subject in OnlineSpin than there are articles on ClickZ about email, but the passions of those reading them have run high.

Comments have run from the polite and mundane to the outright mean and nasty.

The comment that really got me going, however, was one made by a writer in London for Ecademy.com, the E-business Network. The article, “Death to Pop-Ups,” by Robert Loch, took issue, as did several readers posting to the Spin Board, with my apparent endorsement of pop-ups as a viable and perhaps even preferable ad format.

I was going to just let those who read but misunderstood me as being a barker for the pop-up carnival just believe what they wanted and move on to other things (like coordinated use of both the Internet and TV in the home, or my personal favorite cause, audience-based media currency). But Mr. Loch’s piece got me thinking that maybe I need to take one last kick of this fetid dead horse before moving on, just to be sure that everyone is absolutely clear about what the position is that I feel we, as an industry, need to take towards pop-ups.

You see, Mr. Loch called me a “condescending twat.” This may be common practice for business press in England, I don’t know. But I’ve never been called a twat before. At least not since grade school, methinks. I couldn’t decide just how I should respond. Should I make the same kind of ad hominem attacks as Mr. Loch chose to do, or do I try to explain myself with a patient and level piece that assumes Mr. Loch and those who think I am calling for the breaking of the Seventh Seal on pop-ups simply didn't understand what I was trying to say.

The point I tried to make last week was this: A) pop-ups may be painful to endure, but they work within the confines of their purpose, and the folks spending the money on the web right now seem to like using them and B) the popular business press has more to do with the lack of adoption of the online advertising medium than whether or not people like pop-ups.

Things Mr. Loch and others have pointed out as being preferable forms of advertising are all very interesting. EyeWonder and EyeBlaster-type units are interesting and engaging and I like them. But let’s not overlook the role that the "neat-o factor" has when considering what is “attractive” in this business. There was a time that animated banners were “cool,” too. But a fact about the current spate of rich media is that it is their rarity that makes them fetching. If all anyone got as he or she clicked through his or her favorite websites from page to page, I'm sure he or she would be shacking his or her fists from the pulpit at those forms, too.

I've no doubt that those forms that are more conducive to a user's flow experience are better than those that are not, and pop-ups/pop-unders certainly ARE NOT conducive to that flow experience. Many people in this business could learn a lot from reading some of the work done by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his work on the "flow" experience. But for the time being, we are still working our way through the nascent stages of a medium that is trying to figure itself out. Publishers are also trying to make money. And unless Mr. Loch or those of his ilk are willing to support the kindler and gentler forms of advertising they advocate with money, then publishers are going to continue to sell pop-ups and pop-unders. Controlling frequency will help a lot with the hot anger people feel towards pop-ups, and publishers should try to find a way to do this so as to balance their short-term needs as a business needing revenue with their long-term needs as a business needing an audience that isn't angry and alienated.

In the nearly 8 years I've been planning and buying online media, I've found that the most resistance to committing to online media on the part of the client has most to do with a lack of understanding. Which is no surprise. Agencies have been weak in their attempts at making the benefits of the Web understood as an advertising vehicle, and many online publishers have only been successful in convincing adversities to engage the medium out of fear of missing an opportunity that their competitor might take.

But agencies and publishers have been remiss in their commitment to advertisers by simply trying to sell them, rather than demonstrating incremental value when participating in a client's marketing endeavor. Many clients see their agencies and the publishers they work with as a kind of jukebox, where they select the song they want to hear and the machine then plays it. They don't look at publishers and agencies as the kinds of experts in the field that they might very well be. The only source of objective information these clients turn to for review of the marketplaces they find themselves in is the business and trade press.

The point I wanted to make in my article of last week in the 750 words or so that I had to do it was two-fold: 1) that pop-ups might annoy you, but people get used to everything, and until an alternative comes along that those who pay the bills are willing to utilize, we are stuck with them, and 2) that the popular business press does more damage to the industry than most people think. The business press has applied negative pressure to the online advertising industry by focusing on only those things that people feel unfavorably towards rather than the growing mountain of successes the medium has produced over the years.

Yes, pop-ups are terribly annoying. No, I don't like them. Yes, I do believe they are here to stay. No, I don't think they will remain the dominant format. Yes, advertisers who want them are spending money on them. No, the business press (e.g. Wall Street Journal) covering the online advertising business doesn't understand it very well. Yes, I do think that is a problem. And finally…

No, I am not a twat. Yes, I am condescending.

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