Ask your friends, your spouse, the person in line behind you at the coffee shop: Are online ads annoying? I have no doubt they'll say some variation of "totally." For those of us who work in this industry and feed our families based on the notion that digital ads work, we know this all too well.
We understand consumers find online ads highly irritating and that's most likely why they don't click on them. ComScore research has shown that two-thirds of Internet users never click on display ads during the course of a month. What's more, those clicks you see are from a bunch of people clicking on banners over and over again. Eight percent of Internet users are responsible for 85 percent of all clicks, according to the most recent "Natural Born Clickers" study by comScore and Starcom. Given these metrics, it's not surprising that the average click-through rate for display ads is a scant 0.1 percent (as reported in the latest click report by the ad-serving company Adtech).
Don't get me wrong. Ads should be eye-catching. They should make people want to look at them and interact with them. They should be disruptive in some form -- but just disruptive enough so that people notice them.
Consider the difference between a pothole and a speed bump. Potholes often cause cars to swerve in an attempt to avoid them, which leads drivers to veer away from their intended destination, much like when a banner ad takes a user away from the page they are on after they click. In comparison, speed bumps grab a driver's attention without forcing him or her to stray from the route. The analogy isn't perfect, but online ads shouldn't be so disruptive that users swerve, avoid and become angry because of them. Ads should be like speed bumps that helpfully slow down the consumer eye and guide them to offers of interest.
There are ads out there that are doing just that. They work with -- instead of against -- user experience. Here are a few examples:
The Apple 'roadblock' ads on NYTimes.com
These ads have attracted a good deal of media attention -- and for good reason. Apple has done a series of these smartly executed campaigns that both attract and inform without being intrusive. If you wanted to, you could interact with the banner and watch as John Hodgman and Justin Long play with the "Hair Growth Academy" dummy ad on the other side of the page. Or, you could continue reading the page you came to in the first place. It's a case study in the magic that can happen when media and creative teams are completely in sync.
CVS pharmacy ads
Upon user-initiated rollover, these ads allow people to check out sale items, find a local store, print a shopping list and sign up for weekly e-mails without leaving the page. The ad has all of the elements of a successful creative. It not only advertises the brand, it makes it easier for people to consume the information they want. Yes, you can click on it and go to the CVS site, but you absolutely don't need to.
ASPCA's sign-up display banners
To get people to sign up for their Facebook and Twitter campaigns, the ASPCA, a Pontiflex client, makes it as simple as possible for its audience. Interested in fighting animal cruelty? Have a pet that keeps you up at night? Sign up right within the banner and get an immediate e-mail that tells you what to do next. There is no landing page. In fact, the ad doesn't even bother being clickable.
The next time you're struggling with the right headline or design for a banner ad, pause. Consider what people actually want from your ad. They certainly want to know what exciting deal or new show or fancy sandwich you're promoting. If you're a nonprofit and they're interested in your cause, they want to know what they can do to help.
Here's what they don't want. They don't want to be annoyed. They don't want to be taken away from the sites they're on. They don't want to have to hit the back button as quickly as possible to cancel out the click they just made by accident. Because music often conveys ideas more memorably than plainly spoken words, I'll let The Kinks conclude for me: "Give the people what they want." And what they want (among other things) is relevant, manageable disruption.
Zephrin Lasker is co-founder and CEO of Pontiflex. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.