The Underlying Issue with most Online Display Advertising

If you were accosted by annoying salespeople upon entering a store (say an electronics store or a car dealer) would you go back?

If a restaurant served whatever they wanted to serve instead of letting you order would you return?

The online advertising industry often acts like the store and restaurant I describe above.  And it is a real problem.

The problem is one that speaks to the heart of the differences between online and offline advertising.  Offline advertising is about making the most of a limited space or a fixed period of time.  Online advertising may rely on ad units that are relatively small, but the ad provides frictionless access to almost endless information.  The online ad industry has not taken advantage of this.

In fact the effectiveness of online advertising is directly impacted by the typically terrible user experience that occurs when someone clicks on an ad.  The subsequent experience – typically called a “landing page” by those in the industry – tends to be one of three things:

  1. An overly produced experience long on polish and short on information.   People click for a reason and it is rarely to see another ad.  These landing pages often fail to satisfy.  Typical customer reaction – “Now what do I do?”
  2. An experience that has only minimal relationship to the ad creative that prompted the click.  (Think an ad that dumps you on a corporate home page.)  Typical customer reaction – “I’m close, but do you expect me to dig for more information?”
  3. A poorly conceived user experience.  Unclear navigation, insufficient explanation of content, bad url structure, dead end pages, etc.  We’ve all been there.  Typical customer reaction – “You’re wasting my time.  I’m sure what I need is here but I can’t figure out where.”

I believe these bad user experiences do two things that generally diminish the effectiveness of online advertising.  First, they cause people viewing ALL online ads to believe that clicking on an ad will result in one of the experiences described above.  It is like going to a car dealer, I don’t expect to be helped I expect to be hassled.  Sure, some dealers are helpful but I don’t expect it.  Second, bad user experiences prompts advertising creatives to focus on becoming more and more disruptive so as to deliver the information typically found on a landing page without having people click. Kind of like the telemarketer that won’t stop talking because if they do they know you will tell them to shut up.

There are instances where I can imagine putting up with annoying salespeople.  Say the store had great prices or had a selection unrivaled by other stores.  There are restaurants I would go to and blindly let the chef serve me a meal and many super high end restaurants do just that. But generally, I would imagine that most people would avoid the store and restaurant described above most of the time if they had a choice.  And they almost always do have a choice.

Is this why interaction rates with ads continue to decline?

What to do?

If you are a brand marketer, you may not like it but it is necessarily true – you are now also a publisher. Gone are the days where you could create compelling ads and then rely on other groups (your retail partners, your sales force, your event team, etc.) to then expand on your static ad message.

If you work on online advertising creative, hire or become a UI expert.  A rich experience isn’t often the prettiest but it is the most useful and effective.  Talk to publishers about what makes their audience tick and give the audience what they love. Think about how to get people to come back because they want to come back.  Earn their attention and they will give it to you.  You landing page is a website.  Your customers don’t care about microsites, landing pages, sitelets, etc.  Make a great web site.

If you are a publisher, you know how to do this.  You make properties (one would hope) that engage with a market segment and compel people to come back.  You can no longer expect your advertisers to support your site simply by playing within the space or time you’ve set aside for their message.  There is more ad space and time than advertisers need.  You will need to help them understand how to engage with your audience.  You are a solution provider rather than the provider of a solution.

If you are the target of advertising, and we all are, demand the providers you support with your dollars to respond to you.  Having a problem with a product?  Tell people about it or let the company know via Twitter or another service.

Of course I’m being harsh.  There are great online advertising user experiences produced all the time.  I’m painting with an intentionally broad brush because a majority of programs aren’t good and it is causing everyone to expect an extended ad experience rather than a rich, fulfilling, useful exchange.   While online advertising was borne out of the print/tv business it actually has much more in common with event marketing and/or telemarketing.  Create an experience that can inspire your customers to dig deeper and you will earn their attention.

1 Response to “The Underlying Issue with most Online Display Advertising”


  1. 1 Chas Edwards December 11, 2008 at 3:19 am

    Amen, Pete. I couldn’t agree more with your comment that all marketers must learn to be publishers. Publishers can’t force consumers to read their magazines or websites, they need to earn that readership.

    An additional part of the problem is that online marketers *haven’t* been squeezed into a 30-second spot. Was it Mark Twain that said, “I wanted to write you a short letter, but I didn’t have the time, so here’s a long one”? Brands have too much space to work with online. They don’t care about telling their stories concisely in a 300×250 animated windows — why would they? Use that space to get people to click to your site, and then throw the kitchen sink at them. Why tell one story about your brand when you can make a horribly confusing, blinking site that tells them everything you want to say (but more than they want to hear)?

    Why? Because telling your story badly will result in no one listening.


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