The Usability Report: Marketing and Usability - Usability can work for all online marketers

Brands are wasting money on their online ad campaigns simply because they fail to test the effectiveness of advertisements before they go live. Emma Rigby reports.

Brands would not launch an expensive TV ad without extensive testing on user reaction. However, that's not a given for online advertisers. Should it be? After all, many factors can affect the usability of a web site, so it is possible that certain forms of advertising and marketing can affect user experience. Already, some major sites have banned pop-ups, citing user-annoyance.

So, without research into how an online ad affects usability of a site, a brand risks annoying potential customers. By judging an ad's success by replacing one that performs badly, brands are overspending. It would be cheaper to get it right first time.

Yet in 2003, of £300 million spent on online ads in the UK, 20 per cent, some £66m, was wasted when poor placement led to poor response, according to usability expert Bunnyfoot.

According to Catriona Campbell, chairman of The Usability Company, very few brands are taking usability testing of online ad content seriously. "I would be very surprised if any online ad was being tested at the concept stage. It is so inexpensive to design, track and remove and replace ads on the internet.

"This is a disaster to brands," she believes. "Adverts are the starting point to the user journey. We have got to get it right."

But Oliver Lewis, director at Imetrix, which carries out user testing on web site users and provides feedback on their impressions, doesn't think companies are willing to pay for it.

"With usability testing, most of the investment will focus on sites that are interactive and look at task-based issues - how users operate a shopping basket, for example," he says.

So who will take responsibility for devising and placing ads to enable a good user experience online? Is it down to the media buyer, the brand or the creative agency?

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), which aims to improve online advertising standards, believes the publisher of a site should take responsibility.

It has issued guidelines on advertising standards, including a push for industries to reduce the number of ads per page, which should reduce clutter. But the guidelines don't cover usability testing as such. Danny Meadows-Klue, chief executive officer, says: "Relatively little is being done on the usability of advertising on web sites. We feel it is down to the publishers.

"The IAB is more interested in how to prove the effect of the advertising itself," he admits. "We have carried out hundreds of studies to prove the way that advertising can be creative and help brands generate recall."

Campbell argues: "The IAB has fantastic guidelines covering how advertising should be done. The time is now for the IAB to act and to ensure that there are some user-centred strategies."

There are some moves to test the user reaction to ads online. Agencies already carry out focus group concept testing to ask consumers about the colour, the size and image of an ad.

But this is in isolation. Little is being done to investigate how users react to an ad in situ. Brands that post an ad online before usability testing is carried out may be doing more harm than good; measuring the effectiveness of an ad as one that lasts a campaign without being replaced is potentially damaging for a brand, and is expensive. "The future lies in quizzing focus groups on navigation of a web site and asking what they thought of an ad - or if they noticed it," says Campbell.

Digital agency i-level already does this - it has a research, development and web-optimisation arm called Generator. This looks at the communication process and usefulness of the web site and advert to the user. Generator tests a prototype or live site with ads in place and surveys user reactions and ad recall as they navigate. It also pre-tests ads in the media setting.

Jeremy Swinfen Green, i-level Generator managing partner, says: "It's not enough to get a user from a to b on a site. When they get to b, it might not be something that interests them.

"We need to look at the communication process and ensure usefulness of what's on offer to users. Lots of sites hold information for different audiences at once so brands may be advertising a product that isn't attractive to a particular audience. Its also about marketing techniques, and how a site communicates, because there might not be any calls to action - or the text might not get this message across."

How is a consumer affected by banners, pop-ups and rich media? How does this alter their perception of a brand?

There has been plenty of research damning pop-ups as the nemesis of online advertising. A survey conducted by Bunnyfoot carried eye-tracking technology, questionnaires and interviews with 36 users and found that 60 per cent said pop-ups led to mistrust for the brand being advertised and the host site where the pop-up appeared. More than a third did not look at the ad, and the company name was only seen in two per cent of cases. Research from Forrester revealed that 14 per cent of online users use pop-up blockers on ISPs including AOL UK and Tiscali, and search engines such as Google and MSN.

But Swinfen Green argues: "There is nothing wrong with the pop-up. It is the way it has been managed that's the problem. It needs to be relevant and capped."

A survey by fhios, which specialises in user research and design, revealed that users didn't describe pop-ups negatively. The company carried out a usability study on a news site to investigate users' navigational ability. This involved one-to-one interviews with 12 participants who were given tasks to find specific content. Users with a tendency to scan the internet and those who search content deeply were quizzed. The results revealed that not all online adverts are distracting, and users in the study actually viewed pop-ups favourably, because they were familiar with the format and knew how to get rid of them.

Overlays or 'floating' ads were a problem, however. "People didn't know how to close them and lost their focus trying to locate a way to do so," explains Dr Philip Rhodes, founding partner and head of research at Fhios. The worst offender was an ad which included a sound file and made a repetitive noise.

Users preferred adverts placed contextually. Large panel ads from Opodo and easyJet placed alongside relevant travel news were seen as re-enforcing and added to the online experience.

Chris Rourke, managing director of usability company User Vision, explains that adverts that help users achieve their goal are most effective. Timing is key. He explains: "If a user is distracted by an irrelevant ad, this is damaging for the ad, which will be ignored or, worse, be disruptive, and create a bad impression of the site and brand." He says simple ads are effective: "People look at text before graphics; ads with a few lines of html are effective and don't disrupt a user's reason for being online."

Rourke cites Google's text ads as an example of good advertising: "They are relevant to the user's goal. Ads that are served following a user registration where they specify areas of interest are relevant, as are ads served in response to a user's habits online. So serving an overlay when a user has completed their goal, which could be logging out of an online service, is more likely to be effective. Brands can use registered information, at the right time, to serve a contextually relevant ad." It makes sense to take advantage of this.

The user has done what they came there to do and hopefully had a good experience; they are still planning what to do next, and are more likely to 'bite' at an ad.

Paul Dawson, head of media at agency Conchango, agrees: "Advertisers should focus on a point when a user is open to an advertising message," he says. "Advertisers often request that their banner should be served at the top of a page - but it would be much more effective below the fold, when they have finished their task online and are more susceptible to ads."

The worst mistake an advertiser can make is to try to trick a user into clicking on an ad. Deceptive ads negatively affect usability and the overall perception of a web site. "Drop-down buttons that mislead the user by opening a new web site are disruptive - and provide poor value traffic," says Rourke.

Campbell holds up the example of the Economist.com site, which has a policy of labelling all adverts as such. "For any advertiser, this is good, honest practice." Rourke adds: "Web site users are less likely to be annoyed and disrupted when an ad is something they recognise and carries clear branding."

Rich media, when done well, is providing exciting creative opportunities for brands. Larry Krieger, head of client sales and business development, Yahoo! UK & Ireland, cautions there is a time and a place for this kind of advertising: "There is no point in being clever for the sake of it, but for some advertisers it's worked fantastically." The portal has placed streamed movie trailers online. Krieger adds: "Users request to see these ads, so there are advantages to companies such as Coca-Cola and McDonalds to place rich media streamed ads online."

But advertisers need to consider the effect of rich media on usability. A survey by independent researcher Dynamic Logic says consumers feel two overlays an hour may be appropriate, but 70 per cent of consumers feel there are too many intrusive ads. One gripe was that they had to close them (58 per cent), and more than half were irritated by ads blocking content. The research suggests intrusive ads with a frequency cap of two that did not require closing might reduce consumer concerns.

User Vision's Rourke explains that although people notice illustrated and rich media ads, if an ad isn't relevant, the danger is that a user will start to ignore the whole section of the site that it appears on. An animated ad should degrade gracefully; otherwise it usurps the screen, and prevents the users doing the task they set out to do.

Rich media also poses accessibility issues for consumers with disabilities who use screen readers. If users don't have the correct software, they don't see the animation - and for teaser campaigns, which might use rich media, followed by static ads, the adverts no longer make sense and become annoying.

Rourke adds: "Making things graphical and moving for the sake of it is unlikely to work - remember people in a two-hour focus group studying ads are in a completely different mindset than when they're hunched over their keyboard eating lunch and surfing quickly for 10 minutes. That context is critical."

Sarah Escott, commercial director of ValueClick Media, which places ads on sites for clients, explains that when a publisher carries ads, it will inevitably lose traffic from its site. "But by making the ads relevant and providing a good user experience, users are more likely to build brand loyalty and revisit the site." The company works with technology platform Reporo, which allows a banner to remain secure so that users don't leave the original site. ValueClick Media bought ad space using this technology for the launch of Buena Vista's Finding Nemo DVD on a cost-per-thousand (CPM) basis. "This was an instant gratification product people could buy straight away by clicking onto the banner. But you must be careful of the relevancy of the product to the audience and how likely they are to buy. We have had our fingers burnt placing product ads with a high value."

Expandable banners are an option; digital agency Tangozebra has developed its Click Red(TM) format, which offers rich media content for web sites in a user-friendly way. When a consumer chooses to 'click red' on a discrete banner, they are served a full-size overlay page with interactive capabilities.

When developing an online ad, user experience and online advertising should be considered together. The ad should drive users to a web site; once there, the site has to convert users to sales. Conchango's Dawson questions whether advertisers would benefit more by investing in adverts or user experience. "It makes sense to split ad spend between ads and improving the user experience on the web site," he says. "The ad industry isn't challenging itself enough. Advertisers are relying on a funky ad, which doesn't consider how people are behaving online. Banners and rich media are planning the volume game rather than looking at clever selling online."

The future lies in advertising that adds value to the users. Branding through sponsoring extra content on a microsite is one way to do this: by creating association between brands, both parties gain. I-level's Swinfen Green explains: "If an ad is relevant, people don't mind. Intrusive ads are fine if they are managed. People accept that ads need to be there. But if you deliver extra content that is relevant, people like it.

"Online is not just a direct marketing medium - it's also a branding medium."

Campbell concludes: "We've learned lots of lessons on how to make money online; now we need to think about it in terms of advertising. It's a user-centred design process: concept, design, test, redesign and launch. It's not rocket science."

SAMSUNG PUTS FUN TO THE TEST

Samsung launched an online campaign to promote its Fun Club in April across Sky Sports, ITV and AOL.

The Samsung Fun Club gives Samsung mobile phone owners the opportunity to download ringtones, games, images and software, send free SMS and e-cards, and find the latest offers and product information.

The campaign, by digital agency Arnold Interactive, uses Tangozebra's Click Red(TM) format.

Steve Taylor, Samsung account director at Arnold Interactive, calls it a "new approach to online ads".

A discrete Samsung banner has images but no obvious promotional message. It only expands when the user rolls a mouse over the image.

When a user 'clicks red' on the banner, they are served a full-size overlay page with interactive capabilities and calls to action.

James Booth, managing director at Tangozebra, says: "The industry needs to move towards more responsible advertising and that's what Click Red is about."

BRADFORD & BINGLEY USES ADVERTISING IN CONTEXT

Bradford & Bingley used contextual advertising on Yahoo! personal finance (http://uk.biz.yahoo.com/mortgage/index.html). Users effectively sell to themselves through research activity as they journey to the point of sale. Rather than sponsoring the web site, B&B has provided content embedded into the user journey in the form of its Best Buys table.

Users shopping for a mortgage deal might click on the table to peruse current offers. The user arrives at B&B's Marketplace - an independent broker of mortgages and personal finance. It is co-branded with Yahoo! and leverages the trust of both brands. At this point the user is actually in the application process.

"Internet content has been key for us," says Dominic Barton, director, business development, B&B. "So it's good that Yahoo! allowed us to integrate our content into the content of the site. You won't find us advertising on the internet where we don't add to the user experience."

Larry Krieger, client sales and business development Yahoo! UK & Ireland, adds: "The user experience is the holy grail. We chose our partnership with B&B because we felt we were adding value to our content."

Yahoo! carries out research to determine the best ads to use - and where to place them. "We focus on helping advertisers to engage with the audience," Krieger says.

MAXIMISE EFFECTIVENESS OF ADS

Usability company Bunnyfoot has issued guidelines to maximise the effectiveness of online advertising. They cover design and placement of online advertising.

- Misleading copy: avoid any form of trickery. Online advertisers try to tempt the user in by using flashing text such as 'warning' and 'you've won a prize'. Avoid misleading advertising such as hiding the close button on rich media ads. Such techniques make users mistrust the brand, with only two per cent of those taking part in the research making a positive comment about such advertisements.

- Advertising v. content: sites are increasingly attempting to dupe users by placing advertisements which look like editorial content. This breeds huge mistrust. Sites must remember that users don't mind a certain degree of advertising, but making it covert is extremely underhanded.

- Branding: always have the company logo present in any advertisement - you only have a split-second to make an impact. The research demonstrated a much higher recall rate for advertisements with logos always present, particularly where the ad was animated.

- Colour is vital. Adverts containing vivid colours were remembered by up to 20 per cent more people than those in monochrome or darker colours. Sites with larger blocks of distinguishable colours were remembered in 2.5 times more detail.

- Faces, particularly celebrity faces, grab attention immediately and aid recall. Always use faces where appropriate. Children are particularly drawn to faces. According to Bunnyfoot's research, 70 per cent of participants looked at the celebrity photo within the first five seconds of seeing the fully loaded site, and 55.6 per cent accurately recalled it in tests.

- Animation: dynamic images draw the eye - make true use of the interactive medium, but don't over-use as this can backfire. When adverts were shown as static and then dynamic, the recollection rate rose by a quarter.

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