Pull the plug on pop-ups?

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Imagine if every consumer had a "Don't Talk to Me!" sign hanging from his or her neck. Marketing and advertising would never be the same, and the costs would be enormous. This week, at the Ad:Tech New York online advertising conference, some hard questions will be asked about an online ad unit that's become a de facto printing press of "Don't Talk to Me" signs: the pop-up ad.

With the number of consumers using pop-up-blockers now matching the 50 million or so do-not-call anti-telemarketing registrants, we're reaching a dangerous tipping point of consumer rage at a time when advertisers are already challenged by media fragmentation and fleeting consumer attention.

The core problem is that we have lost respect for the consumer. We've become rude, aloof and, worst of all, indifferent to the broader impact of our actions. Consumers know it, and respond by shielding themselves from ads (with or without help from the government). With enough shields, advertising goes nowhere.

So pervasive are these units that consumers now rank pop-ups as more annoying than both spam and telemarketing. Billions of pop-ups shower down every month. One online travel player recently dropped 800 million large-size pop-up ads in July alone, representing 12% of total pop-up volume.

Hundreds of companies now help consumers "whack the ads" and all the top Internet service providers, led by Earthlink, tout pop-up filters as their top one or two marketing benefits (essentially equating customer loyalty with ad skipping). Last week alone, nearly 300,000 consumers downloaded pop-up filters, double the number of spam filters.

TV advertising is most at risk in a world where consumers are conditioned to play non-stop "whack the ads." TV is entering an untested phase of technology-enabled "time-shifting" and consumer choice. Research suggests consumers accustomed to filtering online ads have a much higher propensity to exercise the full potential of PVR ad-skipping.

encouraging ad-skipping

The irony is that many of the same advertisers unleashing lawyers on TV ad-skipping technology are either knowingly or unwittingly sanctioning the very intrusive online ad units that make TV-ad-skipping a form of anger-management and relief for consumers.

What we desperately need is a return to the basics: respect, trust and accountability. This can only take root with the most important fundamental already in place: sincere, genuine, even fanatical listening to the consumer. Most brands talk the listening game, but rarely put it into practice. Wiring our ears to e-mail feedback, 800-call logs, online discussion boards or any real-time consumer touch-point is a "must have" starting point. If we all had better radar, we'd hear the noise or smell the smoke much earlier.

Second, we can't speak through two mouths about the consumer. Orbitz, for example, while showering large-size pop-ups on consumers, frequently issues press releases touting its commitment to user-experience and hassle-free site-surfing. If you complain to Orbitz about pop-ups, they accept little accountability for when and where such units are placed, pointing the finger at "third parties." What they do offer are links to pop-up blocking software entitled, ironically, Panicware and WebAttack. All this makes consumers cynical. Is anyone connecting the dots?

Last and most importantly, we just need to make a hard choice about pop-ups. Either we ban them outright or overhaul the industry guidelines surrounding their proper usage. When 90% of consumers indicate they think less of brands associated with pop-ups, and when a poll of this week's Ad:Tech attendees suggests that nearly 70% believe pop-up reform is overdue, this should be a no-brainer.

To its credit, the Internet Advertising Bureau just formed a task force to address pop-up reform, and both the Association of National Advertisers and the American Association of Advertising Agencies (as well as marketers including Unilever) have publicly signaled concern. Let's rally them on, and make anyone who works to preserve the integrity of marketer-consumer relationships a hero!

At the end of the day, we need to focus as much attention on the ticks (the consumer pain) as we do on the clicks (the short-term gain), and we need to converge around ad models that truly respect the consumer. Some online ad formats, such as search, truly work because they deliver targeted content against specific needs in a non-interruptive environment. Let's keep looking for win-win approaches along these lines.

We're on the verge of doing irreparable damage. But it's not too late to forge a new bond and covenant of trust and respect with consumers. If the consumer wins, marketers win.

Pete Blackshaw is chief marketing and customer satisfaction officer at marketing intelligence provider Intelliseek, Cincinnati. He is moderating a panel Nov. 5 on the future of pop-up ads at this week's Ad:Tech conference in New York.

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