I recently sat down with a friend-of-a-friend, Corey Burr, who is a UX professional based in New York. Corey is the lead UX/UI Designer for the Innovation Lab at Standard & Poors Ratings, and he has also created his own iPhone app called MadHat.
Most media sites do not charge for their content online (though some are moving toward a paywall model such as the New York Times), so to generate revenue, they heavily on display advertising – those annoying flashy ad boxes you see on almost every site you visit.
Display advertising on websites started out as fairly user friendly: the ads were set on the outside of the content, usually in a sidebar or footer. Even so, when the first banner ad appeared on HotWired in 1994 (thank you, AT&T!), people’s first reaction was not to click, but to ignore. (Joel, 2011). Now, some 20 years later, users are even more adapted to ignoring banner ads.
Here are some fun facts about the effectiveness of Display Advertising:
At a Nielsen User Experience conference in 2004, John Boyd from Yahoo! and Christian Rohrer from eBay presented research on how users perceive online advertising. Their findings showed these reactions to online ads:
Because we are so good at ignoring banner ads, advertisers have had to step up their game to get noticed. This has resulted in interstitial ads, video pre-roll, video overlay, push-down banners and other interruptive ads. Though these new display ad options might be making the advertisers and the publishers happy (aka more profitable), this is done at the expense of the user. In addition to “banner blindness,” users are developing video ad blindness now too. Interruptive ads such as pop-ups and full-screen overlays might make lasting impressions on users, but the impression tends to be a bad one. (Hou & Shapiro, 2010)
At what point is the experience of free online content not worth the experience of looking at ads? “We don’t expect consumers to sit through 15 advertisements running at the same time on their televisions, so how is this acceptable in these new media channels?” (Joel, 2008) In the above study, the majority of users expressed annoyance and frustration when discussing interruptive ads. To combat this negative user experience, publishers must figure out alternative methods to keep their users engaged and happy without losing their revenue stream.
Not many ads are actively loved by users, but some advertising techniques do have a positive impact on the user experience. Users were particularly pleased with ads that clearly:
- Indicate what will happen if people click on them
- Relate to what people are doing online
- Identify themselves as advertisements
- Present information about what they are advertising
- Provide additional information without having to leave the page
These design elements are tightly connected to traditional Web usability guidelines: make the users’ options clear, speak plainly, and provide the information users want. (Nielsen, 2004)
Though standard banner ads don’t seem to be go away any time soon, many publishers are exploring more creative (and user friendly) advertising techniques. One example is 3-D overlay ads that aim provide the kind of real world depth that’s missing from display ads and e-commerce sites (Hertig, 2014).
Other successful alternative methods include search, email and affiliate marketing, and “Native Advertising,” which masks brand-sponsorships as editorial content. None of these methods are perfect, but it’s nice to see that companies are finally starting to take User Experience seriously when it comes to online advertising.
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