Interstitial ads might not be much more promising for marketers than banner ads. And it appears neither format has much of an effect on mobile viewers.
According to the results of neuroscience research conducted by WPP agency Light Reaction and Bethesda, Md., lab Spark Experience, users viewing news on smartphones barely pay attention to ads.
To better understand why less than 1 percent of viewable display ads get clicked, the teams spent several weeks testing 30 adults in a lab using technology such as eye tracking, wireless EEG (electroencephalography) headsets to measure emotions and attention, biometric scanners to measure "overall arousal," and facial trackers. Participants were then surveyed about what they remembered and what they did or didn't like.
The results, published in a paper by the Advertising Research Foundation, were revealing but not entirely promising for marketers. For example, time spent looking at ads was less than 200 milliseconds per view, while time spent looking at interstitial ads was slightly more than 800 milliseconds. According to Light Reaction scientist Paolo Gaudiano, that's pretty "insignificant."
Gaudiano said heat maps created using the eye-tracking software showed what everyone already suspected—people are incredibly good at skipping over ads.
"Even though they're clearly viewable in the field of view, they clearly stay on the screen longer than the required one second," he said. "It's equally clear that they might as well not have been there. You can see their eye scanning across and reading and reading, and you can see them slowly, gradually sliding the page up. And then, as soon as their eye hits the top of the ad, then just boom—they just jump right down and continue reading as if the ad wasn't even there."
Digging deeper into the results, researchers found that the majority of the time people spent viewing the interstitial ad was focused on finding the ever-ellusive "X" that closes it. However, Gaudiano said the two formats end up being viewed roughly an equal amount of time if efforts to close the ads are taken out of the equation.
"That kind of alerted us that the issue going on here is maybe they garnered more attention," Gaudiano said. "But that might not really be attention to the ad, but it might be just 'How do I get this stupid thing off the screen?'"
However, while interstitials might perform incrementally better for visual attention, results from the EEG suggest the full-screen pop-ups frustrated users to the point that they registered negative emotions. On the other hand, banner ads registered slightly positive.
So, what does all this imply? The results were meant to inform Light Reaction's theory of the "Perceptual Pathway," a framework to better understand how human sensory systems respond to advertising through a series of stages that begins with viewing an ad and ideally ends with a conversion.
Gaudiano came up with the idea of the Perceptual Pathway to hypothesize specific aspects of creative that allow marketers to influence different stages. The original thinking was to see if Gaudiano and his team could find something that affects the stage where a user notices an ad and pays attention but also has an emotional reaction. What if they were to change the color of the ad so it contrasts with a page? They can test that. What if the size of the "X" to close an ad changes the likelihood of a user actually closing it?
The same theories could be used for native ads. How clear should it be to the reader that what they're about to read is sponsored content? Is it enough to have the header pink instead of white?
"There are all these questions that can easily be tested in a very systematic way like we did before," Gaudiano said. "But it could be used to address some very, very specific issues that are front and center right now."