Definition of Site Clutter Varies, But Users Agree: It's Bad for Advertisers

While interactive ad industry execs revel in the news that online ad spending is skyrocketing, they might consider one thing: more ad spending equals more ads, which equals more clutter. A study from niche content site network Burst! Media shows the effect that advertising clutter has on user experience, brand perception, site abandonment, and message effectiveness. Not surprisingly, when users spot clutter, they're less likely to be hot for an advertiser's product or service.

In its survey of more than 3,100 Web users, Burst! aimed to understand how ads contribute to perceived site clutter--and in turn, how clutter affects advertisers. The study did not measure site design or content as a factor in clutter perception.

Over 60 percent of participants have a low tolerance for more than two ad units per Web page, according to study findings. About a third of users will tolerate a single ad per page, while 26.7 percent will tolerate two ads per page. More than half of respondents (51.2 percent) are less likely to have a favorable opinion of an advertised product when it is immersed within a page they consider to be cluttered.

"Sites that people perceive to have low clutter allow advertising units to achieve cut-through," explains Margaret Hung, director of research services at Dynamic Logic, a cross-media research firm that has studied the effects of clutter on brand perception. She adds that positive brand perception and purchase intent increase when users are exposed to ads on low-clutter sites.

The Burst! study also isolates some gender discrepancies in terms of clutter's effect on ad tolerance and brand favorability. It appears that men are slightly more tolerant of advertising than women. Compared to 23.3 percent of women, 29.3 percent of men say that three or more ads on a Web page is acceptable. And 53.6 percent of women are more likely to have a negative opinion of an advertiser when clutter is perceived, compared to 48.8 percent of men.

More than 36 percent of survey respondents say they leave a site immediately if it appears to be cluttered. When they do remain on a site they believe is cluttered, 73.4 percent of them--men and women alike--pay less attention to ads appearing on its pages.

Still, the perception of clutter is subjective. In other words, one man's clutter can be another man's order. Comments Alan Schanzer, managing partner at media agency The Digital Edge: "Ads are only one variable in what makes an environment look cluttered to a consumer." Numerous components--including page layout, font style, and background color--can also be factors in determining clutter on a Web page.

"Clutter might not just be too many ad units," suggests Dynamic Logic's Hung. "It might just be what else is going on on the page." She elaborates: "It's not necessarily a matter of the number of elements that determine clutter. It's in the eye of the beholder."

Clutter's impact also varies based on a user's age. According to the study, 60 percent of respondents 45 years of age and up said clutter negatively affects advertiser perception, while 40.7 percent of 13- to-17-year-olds and 43.1 percent of 18- to-24-year-olds said the same. In addition, more than 72 percent of participants under the age of 24 years will remain on a site they believe to be cluttered, compared to 50 percent of respondents age 55 and up.

How can advertisers avoid clutter? The Digital Edge's Schanzer looks for larger ad units to provide a sense of exclusivity on a page. Buying multiple units on a page to create a branded effect is another clutter-crushing tactic. As for floating ad units or other rich media formats that are often touted for their ability to cut through clutter, Schanzer admits: "You are eliminating clutter by obscuring what else is on the page," but he cautions, "the consumer may still have the perception that if it's intrusive and cumbersome, it's clutter."

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