Online advertising is a crucial element of any contemporary marketing campaign. But, beyond the need to communicate your message and gain the widest possible exposure for your brand, there are other issues to consider – such as how your efforts are being perceived and interpreted by the viewing and listening public.


And while an ad campaign may generate “high fives”and a buzz of enthusiasm within the Marketing division, it’s possible that your display advertising is completely missing the mark – by alienating and annoying the very people for whom it’s intended.


Tuning Out in Droves


The Millennial demographic (those born roughly between the last quarter of the 20th century, and the year 2000) is frequently cited as a target audience for online advertising.


With disposable incomes and a predilection for consuming their information and entertainment digitally (and preferably, mobile), they’re often the intended recipients of many a streaming video, push and display advertising, or targeted promotion.


But consider this statistic: in August 2015, there were some 198 million active users of ad-blocking software, world-wide. And that number hasn’t diminished significantly, since then.


Clearly, there’s something about online advertising that turns people off, rather than turning them on to great new products. And it’s inspiring them to turn off the adverts.


The Performance Price


Pretty much everyone these days has a low patience threshold and a short attention span when it comes to browsing online. It’s not just the Millennials who fit this stereotype.


If a webpage or resource takes more than a few seconds to load, people start drumming their fingers. And if it takes much longer than that, they’ll leave.


Marketers and the designers of display advertising need to take this behaviour into account. A hype-laden presentation that wins applause in the boardroom may not go over so well, when it’s translated into Web reality through streaming ad servers, multimedia plug-ins (which the user may have to download / update to get the full, glorious effect), and associated graphics or sound files.


Writing for Computerworld, Defensive Computing watchdog Michael Horowitz highlights the case of an article on The New Yorker magazine’s website which – once fully downloaded – managed to consume 25% of the CPU load on an average spec machine running Windows 7 (a not uncommon system configuration, for many of today’s users). This was in the absence of any other browser windows or applications running at the time – and was entirely due to the sheer volume of advertising on the page, and its method of delivery.


Sheer Distraction and Annoyance


  • Bandwidth and resource-consuming video advertising.
  • Huge banners.
  • Adverts with associated sound (which often kicks in, automatically).
  • Ads that follow your cursor around the screen.
  • Ads that grey out your screen after a set interval, and won’t go away until you click a button, fill in a form field, or dismiss them manually (which it’s often not obvious how to do).
  • Ads that expand to fill up your screen (which is barely big enough to display the page content you actually want to see).


All of these are cited by many users as huge (often literally) distractions and instantaneous turn-offs. Yet advertising content continues to churn out these same tired formats – with no apparent knowledge of how so many of their potential customers actually feel.


Why So Terrible?


We could just blame bad design, and poor market intelligence. But there’s more to it than that.


Data and infrastructure analyst Anatole Paine of Boomtrain lays the blame on the display advertising industry as a whole, which has so far demonstrated an inability to police its own actions. Or to develop standards for ensuring a stress-free user experience.


A senior Vice-President of the International Advertising Bureau goes further, putting the current state of the advertising landscape in an economic perspective. Simply put, firms are able to save money on their advertising budgets by settling for poor design and content delivery tactics – and this financial gain fuels their reluctance to change their practices.


But until they do, more and more users will be turning to their built-in or third-party ad blockers.


The Mobile Perspective

mobile phone

It’s becoming a problem for mobile advertisers, too.


Historically, there’s been a clear distinction on mobile, which users have been well aware of: If it’s an ad-supported app (often distributed as “free”), you can expect to see adverts on your user interface. If you pay for it, you shouldn’t see extraneous advertising.


On this basis, users know what they should expect. But the advertising content that’s actually delivered still falls into the “distracting, overly insistent, and annoying” categories, all too often. And the ad blockers are gaining a foothold in the mobile market, as a result.


Last year (2015) saw market leader Adblock Plus launch a beta version of its Web browser for Android mobile phones. On the iOS platform, Apple announced an update for iOS9, with on-board tools for blocking adverts on mobile websites. And an Israeli start-up company named Shine was at the centre of a proposed scheme for blocking adverts on several mobile networks.

ads appearning on phone

Striking a Balance


The advertising industry has kicked back, with several legal attempts to curb the ad blockers – largely unsuccessful. And there’s the long-standing argument (spelled out in words, on many a webpage) that: “Displaying advertising on this website keeps it free. So don’t block the ads – Please!”


It’s an appeal that resonates with many users, who appreciate the challenges of delivering free resources on the Web at a large scale. But until the advertisers respond in kind to those site visitors good enough to let them through, by supplying ads that the users can tolerate seeing, we’ll continue to have a problem.


Better By Design


Some of the more obvious design flaws have been highlighted, already. Here are some other tips for advertisers who wish to enhance the user experience (or UX):


  • Inform, educate, or entertain with your advertising content, to give the recipients some value, for what they’re seeing.
  • Run comparative tests on each new ad (A/B testing), to gauge user responses to different versions of the same ad.
  • Don’t use sound (unless it’s for the sight-impaired). If you can’t communicate your message in words and pictures, you should rethink your approach.
  • Change what’s displayed, and how frequently it recurs, to maintain some variety in what the users see.
  • Limit the size of clickable areas (especially on mobile ads) to reduce the risk of users clicking away from the page they’re actually interested in.
  • If you lack the in-house expertise or creativity, don’t hesitate to hire a professional UX designer.


Informed with Knowledge


Marketing is a responsive discipline, so you’ll need to keep an eye on the statistics and behavioural markers, to assess how your advertising is being received. Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be in a position to modify anything that doesn’t work, and empowered to design better advertising, in the future.