NEW MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON POP-UP ADS - The future of pop-ups is in the better understanding of users. Clare Conley reports on the stand iVillage has made to refuse pop-up ads on its ISP

Pop-ups, pop-unders, overlays, underlays, superstitials and shoshkeles may sound like a lingerie collection to anyone unaccustomed to the esoteric terms of internet advertising, but whatever the term of choice, they are all types of advertising that have the potential to annoy internet users.

And pop-ups are currently under the most intense scrutiny.

After conducting research, the internet company iVillage, which owns ivillage.com and women. com, has made the decision to drop pop-up ads altogether. Pop-ups usually take up about 20 per cent of the screen, literally popping up so that the user must either click through for more information or click to close the window. The survey revealed that 92.5 per cent of female surfers found the ads to be the internet's most frustrating feature.

Considering that iVillage currently makes between 5 and 6 per cent of its ad revenue from pop-ups, this would appear to be an extremely brave decision. It has also set a deadline of 30 September 2002 for big brand advertisers such as Gillette and Unilever - two of the eight companies currently running pop-up campaigns - to replace them with more conventional ads.

One of the main problems is that pop-ups can slow internet users substantially by delaying the loading of web pages. They can also become too intrusive if they appear each time the user visits a certain site, forcing them to click to get rid of the ad on each occasion.

So is it time for pop-ups to disappear from internet sites and media schedules forever?

Carat International's interactive communications director, Dan Watson, thinks iVillage's decision to dump pop-ups is hasty.

"I hope this doesn't spark other sites to do it. Everyone just needs to be sensible about pop-ups so that users don't get annoyed, he says.

Careful use of "frequency capping (limiting the appearance of pop-ups) could help. James Toledano, the marketing and commercial manager for the music site uk.MP3.com, says it's about getting a balance between keeping users and advertisers happy.

"We frequency cap so that users are not bombarded too much. And we generally cap so that a pop-up will only appear two times over a user session. If it's relevant to users the response rates are great," Toledano says.

Freeserve carries pop-ups but has a policy to limit the number. Caroline Pathy, the advertising sales director at Freeserve, says: "As an ISP, as well as a portal, we are sensitive to the long-term experience of users. Capping the frequency of pop-ups is very important. A pop-up on every single page slows down the experience considerably and web users are usually far more purposeful than TV watchers, so are liable to get more irritated when it takes them longer to get to the information they are seeking."

Good targeting is another major weapon in limiting irritation.

"Normal rules apply online, Charlie Dobres, the chief executive of i-level, says. "Media and creativity need to work together. If you are selling a Manchester United football shirt on the club's site then a pop-up is ideal. People will want to see it and to be interrupted to find out about it.

"But if I was checking out the FHM magazine site and a pop-up for mortgages appeared it would annoy the hell out of me. There's nothing wrong with the format, it's all about the usage."

Guardian Unlimited has no plans to follow in the footsteps of iVillage.

Lloyd Shepherd, its chief producer, says pop-ups are monitored carefully.

"At a time when traffic continues to rise, we receive less than a dozen e-mails a week complaining, he says.

Advertisers remain committed to pop-ups. The car company Hyundai will continue to use pop-ups as part of the media mix for the next stage of an online campaign that will launch a five-year warranty across its range of nine cars.

The first stage of the campaign used top-layer technology to "float the range of cars across the screen within five seconds. Users could then click on to each model and roll over it for more information with the opportunity to go to the main site, locate the nearest dealer, request a brochure or book a test drive.

This achieved average response rates of 12 per cent, according to Hyundai's internet executive, Lauren McBride.

Despite ditching pop-ups, iVillage remains committed to the other rich media formats offered by technology companies, including Eyeblaster and Unicast as well as banner ads and pop-under ads. The network is also testing new formats of its own to be introduced at the end of the year.

Meanwhile Yahoo!, which has steadfastly refused pop-ups and pop-unders on its homepage, on the grounds that it might disrupt the user experience, has also entered into agreements with Eyeblaster and Unicast in the US.

It plans to offer new technologies to advertisers, which may include flash-animated pop-ups and streaming video commercials - formats potentially more intrusive than the basic pop-up - and ads that users can explore without leaving the web page they are on.

"Personally I think online could learn much from their offline cousins. By that I don't mean a return to conventional boring formats, but the principles of good copy and strong images rather than the next big gimmick. And website owners must learn to respect their users and protect our response rates. Less is definitely more in this case," Watson says.

iVillage may have ditched them for the moment, but considering the high level of response pop-ups achieve for advertisers, it looks as though they will be here to stay on most sites.

That's even if you click again, and again, and again, and again.

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