Is Measuring 'Consumer Annoyance' the Next Step in Online Ads?

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Over the past few years, as consumers have grown more resistant to online ads, marketers have upped the ante with ever-more annoying ad units. This year marked an inflection point in which consumers pushed back -- and the industry had to listen.

In part, ad blockers have enabled consumers. About 32% of web users -- 86.6 million U.S. consumers -- used or will use ad blockers in 2016, according to eMarketer. That's up from 69.8 million in 2016.

Meanwhile, Google recently announced that it was cracking down on "intrusive" interstitial ads on mobile. After January 2017, pages where content isn't easily accessible to a user on the transition from the mobile search results "may not rank as highly," Doantam Phan, a product manager at Google, wrote in a recent blog post. In general, Google has taken the stance that it would rather try to fix ads than give consumers the tools to block them. Facebook and others have also joined the Coalition for Better Ads to attempt to address this problem head on.

Those companies are reacting -- perhaps preemptively -- to consumer ire over excessive ads. Advertisers would be wise to take such concerns to heart as we head into 2017, when consumer intolerance over such ads will hit a fever pitch.

How we got here
Mobile media has quickly become the main event for advertisers. In 2016, U.S. consumers spent an average of three hours, eight minutes a day engaging with mobile media versus two hours, 11 minutes on the desktop, according to eMarketer.

As Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers Analyst Mary Meeker has noted, though, mobile ad investment hasn't risen at a comparative rate. In fact, there's a major shortfall, which Meeker has dubbed a $22 billion opportunity.

Marketers have been reluctant to funnel more money into mobile because they haven't yet found a winning ad format. Instead, they have jammed the mobile interface with every type of annoying ad possible, including the dreaded "hit X to close the ad" format, which enrages consumers. It's no wonder that as much as 60% of click-throughs on mobile are accidental.

Consumers have said, "Enough." According to a report this year from PageFair, some 22% of mobile users now use ad blockers for the mobile web. (In-app ad blockers aren't yet prevalent, but such technology exists.)

Where we go next
To address Meeker's gap and to keep more consumers from rejecting mobile ads, the industry needs to band together to improve the experience. Moves by publishers like Google are a good first step. However, out-of-control ads on the mobile web -- driven in part by attempts to meet viewability thresholds -- will keep users fleeing to walled gardens like Facebook.

That's why advertisers and publishers should start being more selective about the ads they run, and think of the user experience.

The industry might also want to add another metric to its already long list: consumer intolerance. While we're calculating click-through rates and conversions, we might ask how many users were annoyed by the ads they saw. Considering the current momentum for ad blockers, this is something the industry should seriously consider.

Research has shown that the more intrusive the ad unit, the less of an impact it makes. For instance, consumers find skippable video largely unintrusive -- but they also find it the most impactful. As Google well knows, consumers see interstitials as intrusive, and therefore unimpactful. These attributes -- or, better said, annoyances -- can be measured merely by asking consumers.

Considering all of the actions the industry has taken recently with regard to viewability, "intrusiveness" should be another metric.

Taking into account the relative level of annoyance that an ad elicits would offer a clearer sense of the way forward for the industry. Media can't sustain itself if ad blockers are the norm.

Already, a lot of publishers are pushing back against ad-blockers. This is good, since research shows that many consumers aren't aware of the fact that "free" content is supported by ads. However, if consumers intruded upon, they're not going to be in a great frame of mind to hear a marketer's message. That's why we, as an industry, need to get our house in order before consumers write us off. Otherwise, we risk less effective ads, and advertisers that are less apt to invest in them.

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