Commentary

Beating Online Ad Clutter

  • by January 29, 2008
It is generally accepted that advertising in a cluttered environment reduces advertising effectiveness. Online advertisers go to great lengths to grab the attention of a Web site visitor. Animated ads, ads with blinking lights and other approaches, intended to grab more attention, may actually add to the clutter that exists on a Web page.

How should online ad clutter be defined and can the degree to which clutter impacts effectiveness be quantified? The potential for online advertising overload makes the issue of clutter important for online publishers and advertisers alike.

Dynamic Logic (in cooperation with Starcom and DoubleClick) performed an analysis of more than 100 of the most popular Web sites and thousands of ad campaigns with the goal of understanding the relationship between clutter and ad effectiveness. In these campaigns, Dynamic Logic used its AdIndex survey-based research to measure the impact of online advertising on Aided Brand Awareness, Online Ad Awareness, Message Association, Brand Favorability, and Purchase Intent.

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DoubleClick provided click-thru-rate (CTR) data, and Starcom developed clutter metrics, bringing together clutter information for each of the Web sites. A third party (ROI Research) was used to merge the click, clutter, and branding information to keep the campaigns and Web sites blinded.

An important first step was deciding how to define "clutter." This research applied four different measures of clutter to see which one correlated with ad effectiveness. For each Web site analyzed, the following information was factored into the clutter definition: 1) average number of ads per Web page, 2) total average area, in pixels, of the page covered by ads, 3) percentage of the ads served "out of context," and 4) percentage of ads served that were rich media.

The Web sites analyzed represented a wide range of sites in terms of clutter. About half of the sites evaluated had, on average, 1-2 ads per page; a quarter had more than 2 ads, and a quarter had less than one. We used Nielsen's Ad Relevance definition of rich media, which is fairly narrowly defined as "a method of communication that incorporates animation, sound, video, and/or interactivity via a proprietary ad platform."

A quarter of the sites averaged less than 1.4% rich media ads, and the top quarter averaged 9.1%. Some Web sites had no in-context ads, and some had nearly all (99%) ads in-context. Half of the sites had in-context ads 1.9% to 23% of the time.

The next step was to understand the relationships between each of these clutter metrics and ad effectiveness. Ad effectiveness was defined both by CTR and branding metrics. These relationships were evaluated after adjusting for potentially confounding variables such as age, gender, race, income, education, and the presence of children under 16 in the household.

The research showed that ad clutter was related to CTR and three of the five branding metrics (Message Association, Brand Favorability and Purchase Intent).

The clutter metric that most impacted CTR was ad area. A 10% increase in ad real-estate on a page correlated roughly with a 15% decrease in CTR. Clutter (specifically, average number of ads per page) hampered one's ability to correctly match the advertised message with the correct brand. Ad area was found to negatively impact the ability of advertising to affect brand favorability.

When Web pages are cluttered with too much of the page being covered by ads, people are less likely to feel more favorable toward the advertised brand. According to Dynamic Logic's online ad effectiveness database MarketNorms, roughly 2% of people exposed to online ads in a typical online ad campaign become likely to purchase as a result of the ad exposure. In this study, we found that the percentage of ads that are in-context have a positive impact on the ability of the advertising to positively increase purchase intent.

We concluded that clutter negatively impacts online ad effectiveness, but we also found that clutter only explained 10-25% of the effectiveness of the ad. Other factors, such as the quality of the ad, should be considered more influential. So at the end of the day, creative is king--better ads perform better regardless of the advertising environment. Stated in other words, the best way to beat advertising clutter is to simply put out the best online creative possible.

This research shows that among the ad-environment variables that can be controlled by the Web publisher, the clutter metrics we studied play an important role in CTR and branding metrics. Advertisers should take into account the amount of clutter within the Web sites being considered for the next online ad campaign.

Mallon is vice president, custom solutions at Dynamic Logic, A Millward Brown Company. Ken is also a member of Millward Brown's Futures Group, a team focused on the future of media and associated brand research. Ken's background is in research methodology and statistics, having earned advanced degrees from Stanford and Johns Hopkins. After working for 10 years in Biotechnology and medical research, Ken redirected his quantitative skills and marketing interest to the online world.

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