Outsmarting the Slick Ad Boys 

By Joanna Glasner

Story location: http://www.wired.com/news/business/0,1367,62541,00.html

02:00 AM Mar. 05, 2004 PT

As advertisers strive to draw attention online with flashy video and animated ads, Web users are increasingly firing back by installing programs to block them out.

Following in the footsteps of popular programs that eliminate much-reviled pop-up advertisements, a growing number of applications are purging so-called rich-media ads featuring video or Flash animation.

Thwarting rich-media ads can be more technically difficult than killing pop-ups, given that video and Flash animation are commonly part of a site's regular content. But software developers say adoption of rich-media-blocking tools is on the rise. Their growth coincides with a jump in rich-media promotions.

"Pop-up blockers are being installed on a large percentage of computers, which forces advertisers to use other methods such as rich media," said Ellis Giles, chief technology officer for Elex Technologies, a developer of ad-blocking software. In response, the company added a rich-media-blocking feature to its anti-pop-up software Pop-Up No-No! late last year.

Giles said it's difficult to say which form of online advertising is most annoying to Web users. While pop-ups are almost universally detested, some rich-media ads are now so involved and graphically detailed that they use up a large percentage of a user's processing power. Some take over an entire desktop or browser.

"Clearly there are some forms of acceptable rich media, but in the eyes of some consumers they see them as synonymous with pop-up advertising," said Peter Blackshaw, chief marketing officer for Intelliseek, a data-analysis firm. "This is a very precarious, sticky path for publishers because they have to be very sensitive to backlash."

But given the tepid response typically generated by static online banner ads and consumers' hostile reaction to pop-ups, more advertisers are willing to take the risk.

In a February report, DoubleClick, the largest distributor of Web advertisements, found that rich media accounted for nearly 40 percent of ads it placed in the fourth quarter of 2003. Overall, the volume of rich-media ads distributed increased nearly 60 percent in the quarter, compared to the same period a year ago.

The reason for the ascendance of rich media, according to DoubleClick, is straightforward: higher response rates. On average, one in 79 Internet users who viewed a rich-media ad clicked on it, compared to one in every 370 for other ads. DoubleClick also found that Internet users who didn't click were still more likely to visit an advertiser's website or purchase their product after viewing a rich-media ad.

The trouble is, according to Blackshaw, response rates are sure to decline as people tire of the constant barrage of bandwidth-hogging advertisements. DoubleClick reported a similar trend, noting that the percentage of people who clicked on rich-media ads dropped significantly between the third and fourth quarters of last year.

Meanwhile, the number of rich-media-blocking applications continues to grow. More than a half-dozen purveyors of pop-up-removal software listed on the website Download.com also offer rich-media blocking. Most claim to block ads employing Macromedia's Flash technology, the most common variety of rich media.

Among the largest Internet service providers in the United States, most provide some form of pop-up blocking. But rich-media filtering is less widespread.

EarthLink, which claims to be the first large ISP to offer rich-media blocking, launched a service to disable Flash in May. Scott Mecredy, EarthLink's product manager for core software, said the company added the feature because it believes "rich-media advertising will become the most annoying form of online advertising very shortly."

MSN, for its part, says it has no immediate plans to provide rich-media blocking, although it has become significantly more aggressive in curtailing pop-ups. The Microsoft-owned ISP said it stopped selling pop-ups on its network in May and extended the ban to pop-under ads in January.

Rather than focusing on making promotions as ostentatious as possible, Blackshaw says advertisers ought to draw a lesson from the success of keyword advertising. Keyword campaigns, in which merchants buy small text ads that crop up whenever someone types a specified word or word combination into a search engine, are successful because they're relevant, not because they're flashy, he said.

That said, Blackshaw acknowledged that there can be a place for rich media, so long as websites relegate video or animations to sections of their page traditionally set aside for advertising.

It's also helpful, Blackshaw said, for websites to gauge a user's Internet connection speed before serving an ad. That way, an advertiser can avoid sending a video ad that takes forever to download to a person with a dialup modem.

End of story

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