Cross-posted with iMedia Connection on October 7, 2011.

As marketers, we strive to ensure that our messages capture our prospect’s attention, encourage them to consider our offerings, and in the end make a purchase. But sometimes we lose sight of what’s important to the very people we’re trying to motivate and our ads cross the line between interesting and irritating. While this phenomenon isn’t relegated to just the online world (the Las Vegas strip is a good example of how to cross the line in the traditional world), there are several key things to avoid to ensure your ads are well received.

The clearest example of interruption in the online space was the pop-up ad. For those of you too young to remember, these ads opened a new browser window on top of the content you were reading and you had to close the window in order to continue. In their day (late 90’s, early 2000’s), pop-up ads were highly sought after. While response rates were huge and advertisers were happy, web users complained — and complained loudly enough that the industry finally took notice. While some publishers proactively stopped offering pop-up ad space, the real reason pop-ups went away was browser developers built pop-up blockers into the system. However, the reason behind the blocking wasn’t based on offensive messaging, but rather the fact that it really impeded the flow for the end user. Imagine if while watching a television program the channel changed to play a commercial and the only way to get back to the program was to change the channel back. Sure, your remote is probably close by and it’s easy to click, but it would have interrupted the flow for the consumer and, in turn, annoys more than engages.

Of course, you’d think we learned from this lesson, but we still frequently see examples of interrupting ads 10 years later. The most notable of these is the interstitial. The interstitial ad takes over the full screen, plays a message, and then automatically takes you to the content once the message is complete. The interstitial ad is based much more closely on the TV model — in essence you view the ad to get the content for free — and it’s acceptable in limited doses. In this case, the industry has done a good job of relegating this type of advertising. On most sites you’ll only see the ad once per day, so if you spend time browsing the site’s content, you don’t get interrupted again. In addition, most interstitials have an option to click to go straight to the site content (if this were ever measured I’d guess that this link would have the highest click through rate of any online advertising). So while interstitials are interruptive, they’ve come a long way in improving the experience for the end user.

One final note on interruption is that we do still see pop-under ads today. These ads are just like the pop-ups from 10 years ago, but instead drop to the background. You probably recognize pop-unders when you close your browser and see windows still open on the screen. Pop-unders do a good job of getting your message across, but they lose the context of the content the browser was looking at (the ad may have been sitting on their screen for a long time before they realize it’s there). So while I won’t go so far to say never use a pop-under, I encourage all advertisers to consider the value and annoyance balance before placing this type of buy.

Distracting ads rank pretty high on the annoyance factor. You may recall the dancing people ads, punch the monkey and a variety of other ads that have gotten attention in the past because they were so kinetic. Of course you want your ad to capture the attention of your prospects, but when an ad is so active it distracts the viewer from being able to focus on the page. This idea however started in the very early days of the web with the html <blink> tag. Thankfully this tag is no longer supported by most browsers (and rarely used by developers). The tag used to make the text on the page turn off and on, which needless to say isn’t a particularly enjoyable reading experience. While the <blink> tag didn’t survive, there have been a lot of ads that generate distraction on the screen, flashing colors, moving images and even auto playing sound. I think a lot of these ideas and creatives came to be because we could create them with the current technology, not because we should have created them. Many times rich media gets the blame for being the source of these annoying ads, but the reality is it you can be just as annoying with animated gifs.

Once again publishers have done a good job trying to limit the annoyance factor — limits on the looping, length of animation, etc. help a bit — but it’s still pretty easy to cross the line.

A less obvious component of annoyance comes from running your ads in the wrong places. Normally when this topic comes up we reference the extreme examples like airline ads running next to stories about plane crashes, tobacco ads next to lung cancer articles, etc. But there are a lot of other less extreme situations where improper placement of ads can generate outrage, concern and customer annoyance.

Email is one area that factors high in consumer annoyance. And this annoyance level was the primary reason behind the CAN-SPAM act, legislation designed to reduce the amount of “junk” email we all receive. Just like the pop-up blockers that are in most browsers today, spam filters are becoming commonplace to prevent delivery of mail we didn’t request. Over the years, I’ve been consistently surprised at the level of outrage consumers express when they believe they’ve received spam messages. Believe me; those angry customers aren’t afraid to reach out to company’s senior management to complain. It’s never a fun meeting when the CEO’s office calls the marketing department on the carpet to discuss a consumer complaint.

My final example of how to annoy consumers comes in the form of invasiveness into a consumer’s private life. Invasiveness can be generated in many forms, when you ask for too much information, when you ask for sensitive information and probably the most extreme example when you cross the line and let the consumer you know more about them than they expect. The first scenario, asking for too much information can be easily seen in form completion rates. The more information you ask for, the fewer number of people fill it out. One of my clients used to have a form on their website that was literally three pages when if printed out the form, and they couldn’t understand why 98 percent of visitors left without completing the form. Over several months we refined the form to a much shorter form, that still collected the most relevant information, and response rate grew five times without any loss in lead quality! While most people have shied away from the really long forms, it’s surprising to me that we haven’t learned to cut out extraneous data collection. For example, when you want to understand the geography of where your prospects are coming from, why not ask just for zip code instead of asking for address, city, and state ( better yet just ask for area code) — it’s less personal and more people are willing to share. In talking about personal, we get to the second point — asking for sensitive information. Forms that require social security number, credit card, etc. don’t get filled out easily. You need to earn their trust before they are willing to share that much. A rule of thumb when asking for information is to only ask for what you really need and are going to use. Otherwise, you’re just lowering your response rate for no reason. The final example of invasiveness can best be seen in retargeting. With retargeting ads are shown to people who visit your web site in an effort to get them to come back. Often times when we discuss retargeting we get requests to run ads that say things like “thanks for your recent purchase” or do something that leads the consumer to believe you know who they are. While no personally identifiable information (PII) needs to be shared to retarget a consumer, this type of message can really annoy the recipient. You’re much better off to re-engage this prospect with messaging more along their interest areas than tipping your hand to how you’ve reached them.

What do I do now?
The moral of this story is that as a marketer you should never forget that you’re talking to consumers and you need to do it in a way that makes sense to them and meets their needs. Don’t let the technology we have sway your advertising decisions.