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Gaining consumer trust for ads

August 19th, 2007

I find it kind of funny that the most interactive form of advertising has the worst reputation of all. Take this comment on my post about cookies:

your perspective on the ads seems very strange/scary to me. so a company gathers data about my surfing habits and whatever actions i do, and what do _I_ get in return? Longer load times, ugly flash clips, and bloody kilobytes of useless javascripts in every page.

Admittedly this is somewhat of an extreme reaction, but most consumers do have a very strong aversion to ads. And we as an indsutry are entirely to blame for this.

First and foremost we are often too lax with standards and create ads that can be highly annoying to end-users. Although premium publishers such as Yahoo or AOL are generally very careful about their ad quality many publishers and ad-networks allow highly distracting or even those “seizure inducing” ads that can be incredibly annoying. Yet even the best can be tricked, both AOL and Microsoft have been caught by the Errorsafe scam, which Sandi has documented here for MSN and here for AOL.

It’s not just “bad ads” that have caused this overly negative reaction to online advertising. This slashdot post complains about the latency of ads, a very valid concern when it comes to placing third-party content on a website. It is slightly ironic though that people will complain about waiting a couple seconds for ads to load when on tv we spent almost a quarter of our tv time being forced to watch ads. The thing is, even in a tech-savvy forum such as Slashdot, not a single person points out that all the services and content that they consume for free is paid for by advertising.

Of course consumers often may not even know who they have to blame for the ads that they are seeing. Take this rather typical request for help about “unwanted popups from”. For those of you that don’t know, is the serving domain that Right Media uses. This poor user thinks that his machine has been infected with spyware whereas what is far more likely is that the websites that this user visits intermittently show popup ads. Popups are of course closely associated with spyware/adware and tend to elicit a very strong negative reaction — it really is kind of ironic of course that popups often result in 10x the CPMs compared to traditional banner ads.

Last, but not least we have to talk about those terribly evil cookies. ClickZ covered this rather well in this article. Every “anti-spyware” program removes cookies and some flag them as “dangerous”. Of course there are privacy concerns, and perhaps adserving companies AND websites should be more open with what they track and how to “opt-out”, but cookies aren’t DANGEROUS, they just track what ads you’ve seen and what website you like. Here’s the little known fact — publishers are often the ones sharing the information and showing those popups, but the adserving companies end up getting all the flak. Instead of launching initiatives such as banning firefox publishers should keep an open dialog with their users about why they have advertisements and how they help to pay for all this free content.

If ads continue to have the reputation that they do we’ll just see a larger and larger increase in the # of users that use ad-blocking technologies. I think that Google is taking some good steps here with their recent blog announcement on their adserving tests. Unlike most companies, Google is very open and honest in their privacy policy about exactly what data they are tracking in their cookies and how they will use it. I suggest all privacy councils take a queue from them when writing their next privacy policy!

Education about what’s in a cookie is only the first step. Websites need to be more honest about the information that they pass along to third-parties and how that is used. Sites should also aim to educate their users that the reason they can consume content for free is because of ads.

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  • Rob Leathern

    Good post. When I was an analyst at Jupiter Research we did several studies asking users about their perceptions of online advertising, and repeatedly users would rate online ads as the most annoying or interruptive among all media types, despite TV ads for example being totally interruptive and banner ads less so. But because the barriers to producing a TV ad are so much higher and (thus) the higher production values, users tend to be more favorably predisposed towards them… or less negatively so. A major issue here is that the trafficking and monitoring of online ads is so manual. I recently showed a premium publisher a screenshot of their homepage that had a fake ‘system error’ dialog box creative, and they had absolutely no idea how it got there… and their vp sales claimed they had never shown an ad network ad (which this was) in over 3 years. We need automated, scaleable ways of managing these issues… and as we do add these the wild west ad biz of today can morph into something bigger and better.