Advertising is only getting more pervasive, obnoxious, and intrusive. That's not my personal opinion (though I absolutely agree); that's the internet speaking.
According to recent consumer surveys, digital advertising doesn't exactly have the best rep. Pop-ups interrupt the browsing experience at every turn. Creepy remarketing stalks you with the same display ad everywhere you go. Autoplaying videos embarrass you in waiting rooms and on buses. You can hardly read a news article without having to scroll past a dozen ads and accidentally clicking on one of them. Blech.
But as marketers, how do we justify this negative perception with the fact that ads still perform so well for many businesses? Take a look at this interesting statistic:
83% of people agree with the statement "Not all ads are bad, but I want to filter out the really obnoxious ones."1
Moreover, people are even open to downgrading their ad blocking to something less restrictive:
77% agree with the statement "I wish there were a way to ad-filter instead of ad-block completely."1
As it turns out, consumers don't hate ads; they hate bad ads.
Lots of people, including myself, have been introduced to a new product they love through well-placed, well-executed advertising that follows the inbound marketing methodology. I'm really glad I found those ads, and I've had a few great consumer experiences because of them. Yet when I think about ads online, I feel like this:
And I'm not alone...
- 91% of people say ads are more intrusive today than 2-3 years ago
- 87% say there are more ads in general than 2-3 years ago
- 79% feel like they're being tracked by retargeted ads1
People feel overwhelmed, interrupted, and stalked by bad digital ads, but they don't really mind the good ones. Is it just me, or should marketers feel really freaking grateful that consumers are still willing to make that distinction?
Let's start with some numbers about the most hated digital ads (FYI, all references are included at the very end of the post).
Pop-Ups Are the Worst
The advertising that is most resented by consumers is (shocker!) pop-up ads, with a 73% disapproval rating. Even Google hates them. Mobile ads come in a close second, with 70% agreeing with the statement "I dislike them." In third place are online video ads that play before content loads (like on YouTube). with 57% dislike.1
This new research into consumer opinions about digital advertising has clear lessons for the marketers who manage digital ad campaigns, regardless of platform. Here are 6 themes that stood out in the course of my research.
1. Don't set videos to autoplay.
It's interruptive, annoying, and downright rude. An impressive 82% of people report that they have closed a web page because of an autoplaying video ad, and 51% of people say they think less of brands that use autoplaying online video ads.2
Similarly, non-skippable video ads are the most hated form of advertising among adblock users.4 In general, people hate feeling forced into your ad - so don't do it.
2. Don't mislead people.
Luring consumers in with something that sounds hyper-relevant to what they're reading or watching, but ultimately isn't, will not convert visitors into leads... but it will piss people off. When asked "What caused you to click on an advertisement, 15% of people said "The ad tricked me into clicking."1 In case that doesn't sound like a lot, that's 15% of all ad clicks.
3. Dumb is just as bad as misleading.
Fifty-six percent of consumers say "most online ads these days are insulting to my intelligence," which contradicts the idea that you need to write for the lowest common denominator.1 If you've been "dumbing things down" for your audience, you may need to revisit your buyer personas and focus on how they want to be talked to.
4. Ads need to—and this is very important—not look like ass.
That may seem obvious, but when 63% of people say "Most ads I see online don't look polished or professional,"1 the consumer's standards are likely higher than you think.
Part of what makes ads feel intrusive is a feeling of dissonance, clutter, and lack of coherence with the placement of the ad. Some of those elements are outside of your control, but you can impact much of it with good design.
5. If you do use pop-ups, be judicious.
Before you interrupt their browsing, give people time to find value in what you're providing. Eighty-one percent of people have closed a web page because of a pop-up,2 but they'll be less likely to do so after they've already received some benefit from what they're reading or looking at (and have more to look forward to).
In particular, people don't like being forced to close ads that pop up; 89% agree that "Certain ads, like pop ups or ads where I have to click "X" to remove them, are really frustrating to deal with."1 To minimize frustration, make your pop-ups easy for people to close, and even give people multiple ways to do so (e.g. with an "X" and a "no thanks").
6. Retargeting requires some finesse.
About 79% of people say "I feel like I'm being tracked because I've seen ads for items I've bought in the past."1 Unless you sell home security systems, it's not in your interest to make your potential customers feel like they're being stalked.
Here's a simple trick you can use. Would you do it in person? Let's say a customer is browsing in your store and you see her pick up a pair of sunglasses, try them on, check the price tag, and set them back down. You might walk over to tell her that they're on sale, or that you have another color in the back, or to share a cool story about the brand—each of those interactions add something for her, and she might even welcome them. But if you follow her around the store going, "Did you forget those sunglasses? Are you sure you don't want those sunglasses? What about now?" you're going to lose a customer.
Negative ad experiences can really stick with consumers. Consumers report that "Obnoxious or intrusive ads give me a poor opinion of the websites that allow them" (85% agree) and "a poor opinion of the brands that are being advertised" (84%)1
If "obnoxious or intrusive" seems a little subjective for your taste, there's also data on what types of advertising impact people's opinions most negatively.
People surveyed were asked "If a company you regularly interact with sent or displayed the following types of ads to you, how would your opinion of the company change?" The results are measured in what percent of people would experience a decrease in opinion of that brand. Interestingly, there are two relatively distinct groups.2
In the mostly-okay-with-it category, we have:
- Television commercials (9%)
- Sponsored LinkedIn posts (9%)
- Sponsored Facebook ads (13%)
- Online display advertisements (13%)
- Email advertisements (promotional or sale announcements) (15%)
- Online video advertisements (25%)
In the GTFO-of-my-face category, people expressed dislike for:
- Direct mail ads or promotions (mailers, "junk" mail) (48%)
- Autoplaying online video advertisements (51%)
- Pop up online advertisements (70%)
- Telemarketing calls (81%)
Well, I can't say I don't agree. Which brings me to our next topic: ad blockers.
Consumers Have the Power
For many people, ad blockers have become a standard part of browsing online. They're extremely common—one report estimates that ad blockers have 198 million active users (and millions more downloads—over 500 million, according to Adblock Plus). All of that blocking had a clear monetary impact; publishers lost $22 billion to ad blocking software in 2015 alone, and it's anticipated that by 2020, $35 billion a year will be lost.3
Not even mobile ads are safe.
Mobile adblock usage grew by 108 million year over year to reach 380 million active devices globally by December 2016. At this time, there were over 600 million devices running adblock software globally - 62% of which were on mobile devices.4
While currently only a fraction of mobile ad block users are in North America and Europe that number is destined to grow; 83% of people say they would like the option to block ads on mobile devices.1
Does all of this ad blocking mean that consumers are oblivious to why the websites they love incorporate advertising? Nope. Almost half of people (49%) agree with the statement that "People who use ad blockers need to be fair and pay for content some other way."1 Consumers understand that content has value and companies should be compensated—they just feel violated by the way many companies pursue that compensation.
Let's dig a little deeper into why people use ad blockers. Here are the top reasons1:
- Ads are annoying/intrusive (64%)
- Ads disrupt what I'm doing (54%)
- Ads create security concerns (39%)
- Better page load time/reduced bandwidth use (36%)
- Offensive/inappropriate ad content (33%)
- Privacy concerns (32%)
- Reduced data usage (for mobile plans) (22%)
- I don't like contributing to a business making money off my browsing (18%)
- Ideological reasons (8%)
Websites that rely on ad revenue are fighting back, often by preventing people from viewing content if they're using an ad blocker. But it doesn't really work; 74% of adblock users say that they leave websites when they encounter such an adblock wall.4
Other sites have shifted focus to native advertising that matches the look and feel of the other content, a strategy that would seem to be in keeping with what consumers want. When asked "What do you think is the best way to help support websites (to cover their costs)?", here's what people said:1
- "I'm fine with seeing ads but only if they are not annoying" (68%)
- "I'm fine with the current situation; I see ads to support websites" (31%)
- "I'd be willing to pay for the content I enjoy" (9%)
- "I'd prefer to donate an amount directly to each website" (6%)
Of course, seeing ads isn't enough; marketers need to produce ads that people actually click on, and that often isn't happening. Forty-five percent of people report "I don't notice online ads anymore, even if I don't block them."1. And when they do click, it's often not for the reasons you might think.
About 1/3 of Ad Clicks Are Accidental
What's worse than getting no clicks on your ads? Getting ones that lead to extremely high bounce rates and damage your domain authority!
Only about 40% of people click on ads because they're actually interested. A terrifying 34% of ad clicks are by mistake. As a possessor of giant ham fingers that can't click on a tiny "x" to save my life, I can verify this. As I mentioned earlier, another 15% of respondents said "the ad tricked me into clicking," so they aren't exactly on board, either.1
Reasons for intentional clicks include:1
- "The ad just so happened to interest me" (40%)
- "The ad was a search result" (21%)
- "The ad was creative or visually appealing" (13%)
- "The ad was compelling or provocative" (7%)
So... what's happening with that ineffable "just so happened to interest me" group? Of course, we have to assume it's a conglomeration of factors, but we can't ignore that fully 40% of people can't tell you why they clicked. Of course, high-quality ad design and copy are a contributing factor, but my guess is that this number includes alignment between ad and content, the subconscious effects of retargeting, and good timing.
Content consumption is shifting to social platforms, which rely heavily on native advertising.2 On platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn, social ads follow a predictable visual formula, and users can enjoy both organic and promoted content in a way that is expected and comfortable. Familiarity with the visual language of native ads only adds to the feeling of contrast and dissonance created by more invasive forms like pop-ups and autoplaying videos.
So, what ads pass muster?
Successful digital ads don't overtly disrupt the consumer's browsing experience in an intrusive or annoying way. They make sense in the content and location where they're placed, look professional, are easy to understand and use. They are well targeted to the consumer, so they're relevant and speak the consumer's language. They're clear about what's being offered, so people don't feel tricked.
Importantly, great digital ads give people clear choice: to play the video, to close the pop up, to click on a clear call-to-action. As Dr. Robert Cialdini points out in his famous research on the psychology of persuasion, people want to act consistently with their prior choices. When consumers feel like they made a choice to opt in, they'll take the content of your ad more seriously.
Of course, while better targeting is a much better strategy than simply opening the floodgates of your ad budget, repeat exposure is still important to your conversion rate. When you do use retargeting, focus on adding more value along the way with tactful and relevant ads.
Contrary to what the "advertorial" trend might suggest, the secret isn't making ads seem less like ads; it's making them less intrusive, less irritating, and more relevant.
Prefer organic tactics? Here's a little help with no strings attached.
This post was originally published in 2016 and has since been updated with any new statistics and/or research available as of September 6, 2018.