Investing In Our Industry Is Crazy, Because We're Insane

Hatred doesn’t just show up one day — it brews over time.  Consumer hatred for online advertising has reached a boiling point, but it started to brew in the late 1990s.

Pre-Internet advertising, nobody talked about how much they hated a page-four color ad for Burberry in Vanity Fair

Pre-Internet advertising, consumers gave television ads a chance to win them over. The great commercials literally jumped off the screen and into our lives.  

If you were working on Tuesday, Dec. 21, 1999, you heard someone come into the office that morning and say, “Whatsuuuuup?” It was around that time, when Budweiser brought us that tagline, that Internet advertising started its incline in site visits and ad dollars. Consumers were excited about what the Web had to offer, and were interested in the ads that came as a toll for their drives along the information superhighway.

So what did we do?  We pounded them over the head with pop-up ads covering the content they came to see.  These ads had a tiny “x” in the corner to click to make them go away. 



Users of course swung away at that “x” and often missed, which meant they were mistakenly transported to sites they had zero interest in visiting.  This infuriated users, but inflated the number of clicks a site delivered to advertisers — and consumer hatred for online advertising started to heat up.

I was running sales at in 2001 when we conducted a focus group with our site visitors. The sales team gathered in a conference room, and a group of users called in to tell us what they liked about the site and what they didn’t.  That day, they pleaded with us to “stop selling those stupid pop-up ads.”  

We immediately stopped — and never looked back at the ad dollars we'd lost out on, because we'd literally heard users express their hatred for these ads. We still sold lots of the ads they didn’t hate, and things worked out pretty well for IGN.  

Fast-forward to today, when 50% of a Web site’s visits (at minimum) now occur on a mobile device. What do you see all over the mobile place? Pop-up ads. They look even more ridiculous on a small screen — but it gets worse. 

In addition to these pop-ups, mobile mini banner ads are embedded into the content at the perfect place on the top part of the page, where consumer’s thumbs constantly bump into them. Which results in — you guessed it — accidental clicks transporting users to sites they have no interest in visiting. Consumer hatred for online advertising has started to boil.

So what do we do?  The mobile ad sales forces out there are telling clients that mobile ads click through at 1,800% higher than desktop display ads.  Just brilliant.  

Here is a little common-sense insight: The number of people who visit a non-search Web site on their mobile device, and actually want to click on an ad that takes them away from the site they chose to visit, is zero.  

What we should have done as an industry is sold mobile display ads that can’t be clicked on.  That would have worked — for so many reasons, I don’t have enough words left in this column to dive into them.

The irony with mobile advertising is that we had the chance to start over and fix all the mistakes of our past.  Instead, we did the exact same thing we did with desktop ads, and we’re expecting a different result.  By definition, that makes us insane.

This whole thing is a house of cards — and in 2016, it’s going to start to crumble.  Investing in any company that relies on selling online ads (display, native, whatever) is crazy, because our industry has lost its mind.

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