The Online Experience

As an industry, it seems like we've been at rock bottom for quite a while now. We're sitting here rattling around the bottom of the barrel making a lot of noise about the promise of online advertising. Press releases proclaim that Internet advertising really works for all sorts of traditional branding goals.

Meanwhile, a bunch of spycam ads and "You're a Winner!" banners flash before our audiences. CPA deals for car insurance, debt reduction programs, work from home opportunities, and shopping clubs blink and pop and float around their screens. We tell them they have messages waiting, they have 60 seconds to respond, or their eligibility has been verified.

I wonder how many of us have really thought about what the experience of navigating through this wonderland of direct response does to the user and the advertiser.

Of course there have been boisterous debates about the morality and efficacy of pop-ups and pop-unders. We've discussed the issue of how "intrusive" advertising should be in countless conferences, workshops, and seminars. These exchanges will likely continue long after I'm comfortably retired.



However, when I refer to the online experience, I'm not focusing on user preferences (they'd prefer not to see any advertising outside of Super Bowl commercials). My concern is with how a user actually interacts with the media. Does a consumer lose general trust in a medium when faced with consistent, persistent, over-hyped advertising messages.

I had an interesting discussion last night with a friend who isn't in the industry (I realized recently that those people exist!). He described how most of the advertising he saw online was almost always completely baffling and meaningless to him.

Without even knowing the name of the advertiser, he described one of those popular pop-under ads. It honestly confused him that a home surveillance product would be advertised using pictures of scantily clad women. The images on the ad and the copy seemed to be from different products. It made him wonder whether he was missing the punch line.

He also pointed out the folly of "You're a Winner" banners. His interpretation of their "success": no one ever expects to get hit by lightening, but they all hope to win the lottery. Odds of either happening are about the same.

Now, lest you object that I am socializing with folks living on the wrong side of the bell curve, this man is a well-respected and highly intelligent local attorney. I think his assessment is fairly representative of what the online user experience is like these days.

My point: online direct response is careening out of control.

I don't have any factual evidence for this position (that would make it research instead of opinion!), but I submit for your consideration that user experiences like this may actually be impacting our ability to bring more "legitimate" money into the industry.

There are plenty of reasons why agencies and their advertisers aren't spending larger percentages of their budgets online. I suspect one of them is that many of the biggest traditional advertisers don't really want to be associated with the madness that online advertising has become.

I'll admit that I'm as guilty of being a slave to direct response advertisers as the next guy. For many of us, the direct response folks are the only thing keeping the lights on during a tough market.

Still, we see study after study confirming this medium's success potential for both branding and response. So, how do we fix the negative association with deceptive direct response campaigns? Have we all simply become slaves to the direct response behemoths?

I think we need to push for our direct response friends to become more relevant and honest about their product or service. Some of us are more than happy to show them that advertising doesn't have to be deceptive to be successful.

Consumers don't like to be tricked, and legitimate advertisers don't appreciate being associated with tricksters.

-- Scott Brew is President & CEO of, an online advertising network and marketing services firm based in Grand Rapids, MI. He can be reached at

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