Captcha Ads: Awesome for Brands, Awkward for Users?

Making 'I'm lovin' it' a website access phrase

Until this year, security for Web interactions meant copying distorted letters into “captcha” boxes to prove we weren’t spam robots. The software was initially developed by the Army; now it’s free shareware, and it's not particularly effective. But Solve Media, a startup based in New York, has found a way to earn money on captcha boxes while making them easier to solve in the process.

Business-wise, it’s brilliant. Brands display an image and message; users type it in and proceed to the next level. Solve Media’s captcha ads have a 12-times-higher message recall and a three-times-higher purchase intent than other forms of online advertising, according to independent research from the Wharton School. Engagement rates are 30 percent, compared with 3 percent for rich media and .15 percent or less for banner ads.

Solve Media’s captcha ads, which already include brands like Toyota, Gilt Groupe, Dr Pepper, and Groupon, are on the registration pages of more than 2,000 publishers. The company shares ad revenues with its site partners.

But with the brilliance comes a little evil. For the most part, an Internet user can control whether he or she engages with a display or text ad. Not the case with captcha ads, which are required in order to take any sort of Web interaction to the next stage.

But few have complained. Solve Media CEO Ari Jacoby explained it’s because branded captchas are easier to solve than the regular garbled text captcha screens. The company spent a year developing technology that pixelates letters, making them impossible for robots to read but clear to a human eye. (The technology also uses a smorgasbord of variables to indicate whether a surfer is a robot before the captcha is even served.)

As a result, the average Solve Media captcha is completed seven seconds faster than a plain text one. So basically, it takes advantage of our impatience. But it also requires typing in the word “Starbucks” or phrase “I’m lovin’ it.” What if we, in fact, aren’t lovin’ it? As it turns out, most Internet users are willing to regurgitate a brand’s message to save seven seconds. What's not clear is how happy they are about it. Do they remember the brand favorably?

Which leads us to Solve Media’s new brand analytics product: Solve Media Insights. Instead of typing in a predetermined brand message, users can voice their opinions. With its ad platform Type-In, the user is prompted to type a word—any word—that describes his or her impression of the brand pictured in the captcha. Not lovin’ it? Type in “lame.” The data, certified by comScore, itself becomes valuable to advertisers. In the coming months, Solve Media will roll out a “Part B” of its Insights program, which will offer comprehensive historical data to its customers, Jacoby said.

Solve Media raised $4 million in venture backing in September 2010 from AOL Ventures, New Atlantic Ventures, First Round Capital, and angel investor Roger Ehrenberg. 

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