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Curiosity and the Power of the Liberal Arts

This is what's wrong with online advertising.

The Illuminated Crowd
Flickr image of "The Illuminated Crowd" public art in Montreal via @stephrog

"2015: The Year in Culture"

Sounds like my kind of article, so I click through.

I'm taken to Departures.com, part of the Time Inc. Affluent Media Group family of websites, which also includes Travel + Leisure and Food & Wine. All reputable publishers producing premium content. And yet this is what I encounter:


1) The beginning of the story that piqued my interest takes up about 27% of the page (closer to 5% if you disregard the large image and white space around it). There are four prominently placed ad units above and to the right (and one in the footer, well below the fold). In order to keep reading, I'm forced to click through to the next page.

2) I'm served yet another ad, this time in the form of the much derided interstitial, or pop-up, that interrupts my reading until I can either sit through it or skip it to proceed. In this particular ad the "Continue to Site" link and "[X]" to close the ad link are dangerously close, and I inadvertently click through to the advertiser's site (causing mild annoyance for me, and inflated response metrics for them).

Departures 2

3) I make it through to page 2 (0f 23!) where I am rewarded with a bit more content, but no option to "view article on one page," which is customary in this scenario. Instead, Departures forces me to click through to the next page, which - you guessed it - spawns another interstitial. This happened between ALL 23 PAGES of the article. And it was always the same ad. Most readers probably would have abandoned ship at this point because the user experience was so poor, but I played along to see what would happen.

4) Five pop-ups later (and a couple of miss-clicks through to the advertiser's site), I arrive at page 6. Which is an ad. No article content on this page, just an ad unit for Wynn Resorts surrounded by the other standard ad units. I have been served 30 ads to this point, and this new placement brings it to 31. I'm not even halfway through the article I wanted to read.

What is going on here? I have a reputable publisher, whose content I enjoy, but I feel duped. Their site seems to be more a vehicle for ad delivery than actual publishing, with little to no thought given to their readers.

Listen, I work in digital media and I understand the need for (and value) of advertising, particularly as a revenue stream for publishers like Departures. But the ad model only works if readers feel like they are getting value in return (i.e., I'm willing to view your ads in exchange for free content). When you make the content incredibly difficult to access, or overshadow it with the ads, the value exchange becomes uneven and I lose interest in your site (and content).

As for the advertisers...I saw the Glenlivet pop-up 23 times in one session, and the Fathom Cruise to Cuba ad about the same. I'd like to think the excessive pop-ups were thanks to a glitch in the system (I just went back and no longer see it, but that could simply be because they burned through their impressions), but even so the site and its advertisers could follow some basic best practices to avoid this. Among them:

  • Don't chunk up long articles into dozens of pages just so you can serve more ads. If you must, at least give readers the option to "view on one page."
  • Don't place "continue to site" and "close ad" links so close together. Remember that many people may be viewing on a smart phone or tablet and navigating via touch (which can be less precise than a mouse).
  • Evaluate post-click behavior to make sure those who did click through seem to have done so intentionally. If there's an exceedingly high bounce rate, something is wrong that warrants further evaluation (creative, offer, placement, target...).
  • Set frequency caps for your ads so you avoid overexposure and ad waste.
  • Monitor ad delivery and adjust accordingly if you see over- (or under-) delivery in any given placement.

User Experience FTW.

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