Remember X10? Back at the end of the dot-com era, the spy camera company took popunder ads to an extreme. It even rode its tactics to one of the top slots in the MediaMetrix rankings. Lots of sites ruined their user experiences in the short-term chase for ad dollars by bombarding visitors with popups and popunders. Thanks to Firefox and advanced versions of Internet Explorer, a good chunk of Web users don't get many of those annoying ads.
Get ready for X10 2.0 as the economic downturn puts incredible pressure on pubishers to get clients more "engagement." Let's face it, banners aren't doing it. The entire adjacency ad model looks shaky in the limitless expanse of digital media. Jakob Nielsen has long preached "banner blindness," yet the focus online seems to still be on more and more ad networks to slice and dice worthess inventory. Don't get me wrong: dispay ads have their place. Numberous studies have shown they have an incremental impact on search clicks and conversions. Still, advertisers will keep driving down prices for these commodities. The smart sites will craft smart integrations and sponsorship packages for clients.
Others will take a page out of X10's book and just look for more intrusiveness. ESPN.com recently rolled out its much-trumpeted redesign, promising to simplify an experience that even its top exec termed "frustrating." To its credit, ESPN has stopped the autoplay video, an annoyance that scared the bejesus out of countless Internet users. (An ESPN exec once confided in me that it knew how annoying the autoplay was but calculated it couldn't sacrfice the added ad revenue,) One of the new features is what to me is a horrifying video home page takeover, which ESPN is terming a "prestitial" and thinks will be prized by movie studios. (That's better than the Orwellian "welcome screen" ad. Nobody feels welcome when they're trying to get somewhere and someone pops in front of them trying to sell something.) Ford scrounged up enough money to work with ESPN on the execution, which bocks the ESPN home page with a video message overlay showing the F-150 pickup seeming to kick mud on a SportsCenter anchor. Some (in advertising) like it. Others (not in advertising) aren't convinced.
My guess is the first of many moves to be more aggressive with advertising mingling with and even mixing with content. As a creator of content, I'm somewhat sympathetic. Users have gotten mostly a free ride until now. The economics of digital media aren't great if you're not just pumping out user-generated content or social networking pages. Jeff Zucker was onto something with this trading-analog-dollars-for-digital-pennies bit. But time and again, advertisers blow it. People are ignoring our ads? Let's make them bigger and more intrusive. Here's a crazy thought: make a banner ad that over 750,000 people voluntarily watched on YouTube. Another idea: give users some choice. One of the more interesting ad experiments going on is at Hulu, where users can choose their sponsor and even if they want to sit through a longer initial ad or several commercials throughout the content. I like that. There's a value exchange taking place: make it open and transparent. That approach won't work for most pubishers, but slamming bigger and noisier ads at people is a risky proposition when other content is just a click away and technologies like AdBlock Plus are really easy to install.