Stop the Clutter!

Last week, while surfing through a well-known news site, I came across a page that nearly made me bail out of the site altogether. While I was attempting to read a news story, the site generated a pop-under. Then, an elusive piece of scumware that is hiding somewhere on my PC triggered another pop-up ad. Simultaneously, Unicast’s Java applet triggered a Superstitial. These three different types of pop-up ads appeared on a page that already contained two banner ads, a skyscraper and numerous buttons and text links.

How the heck can an advertiser expect to break through this ugly clutter? Even if an advertiser managed to get a commercial message across, is that a good thing or a bad thing? After all, I’m always hearing people say things like “I’m never buying anything from Orbitz or X-10 because of all those annoying pop-up ads.”

Clutter is an enemy well known to advertisers. In other media, planners take clutter into consideration when they evaluate media vehicles from a qualitative standpoint. I’ve known quite a few print books that have lost business as the result of their advertising/editorial ratio being skewed too far toward advertising. We’re aware that clutter is a detriment in online advertising as well, after having seen a few studies like this one.



When I worked on the traditional media side, I did a lot of print buying. A big part of the qualitative aspect of that business was positioning your ads for maximum impact. Of course, when I was buying print, I’d take as many preferred positions in magazines as I possibly could: back covers, inside covers, positions across from the Table of Contents, opposite the magazine’s cover story, etc. This would maximize the probability that the magazine’s readers would see my ad. When I couldn’t get a premium position, I had a basic set of placement guidelines that I would give to all of my reps and attach to all of my insertion orders. The placement guidelines were part of the contract, such that I would get a full makegood if they weren’t adhered to. In the guidelines, I would specify that my ads couldn’t be covered up by a business reply card, that they had to be on a right-hand page, that they couldn’t be backed by coupons or anything else that someone might cut out of the magazine, and that my ads had to be opposite editorial and not another ad.

These guidelines combated clutter pretty effectively. By specifying that the ad had to appear on a right-hand page opposite editorial, the guidelines pretty much ensured that anyone reading that editorial would also spend time with my ad without simultaneously being distracted by other advertisers.

Why don’t we pay as much attention to clutter in online media? We all know it’s a variable in determining the ultimate success of our ad campaigns, regardless of whether those campaigns are branding or direct response oriented.

When The New York Times Digital announced they would sell “Surround Sessions” exclusive to one advertiser, I thought we were headed in the right direction. However, I’m still seeing pages crammed with five or six advertisers at a minimum.

As an industry, we know that we need to commit ourselves to selling the effectiveness of the medium to advertisers. I think advertisers and agencies need to adopt interactive positioning guidelines before the number of advertisers per page hits critical mass and starts to really tick off consumers. Reducing the number of advertisers per page of content can do several things, all beneficial to the industry in the long term:

  1. It will reduce the overall pool of available ad inventory. Less supply means increased demand, which means higher CPMs for publishers.
  2. It will increase the effectiveness of everybody’s online ads.
  3. It will allow publishers to sell exclusive sponsorships effectively.
  4. It will cut down on the need to continually invent new forms of intrusive advertising to attract the consumer’s attention.

If online media buyers and online advertisers start paying particular attention to the editorial environments in which their ads run and how cluttered they are, I’m sure we can increase the effectiveness of our online advertising by making a few simple requests of publishers.

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