Pop-Up Ads Are Annoying — But They Work

By: Dave Roos
Pop-up ads are less common now, but there are many other ways advertisers annoy internet users. Busakorn Pongparnit/Getty Images

In the mid-1990s, Ethan Zuckerman worked for Tripod.com, one of the first free web-hosting services for creating personal websites. Zuckerman, now director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, believed deeply in the ethos of the early internet, a global public square where every voice had equal footing. But keeping Tripod free to users meant that revenue had to come from somewhere else. Like millions of other web companies, they chose advertising.

Soon Tripod was selling online ad space directly on Tripod-hosted personal websites, which worked fine until a major car company noticed that one of its ads was posted on a site celebrating anal sex. Zuckerman, believing he was acting in the best interest of both the advertiser and internet users alike, wrote some code to display the car ad in a separate browser window instead of on the kinky sex page.


Zuckerman had just invented the pop-up ad.

Pop-up ads spread across the nascent internet like a plague. Pop-ups were beloved by advertisers because they flung the company's message in front of as many eyeballs as possible. Even better, users had to physically close the window, which forced them to interact with the ad, if only for a second. Blinded by the novelty and blanket exposure of the pop-up format, advertisers didn't foresee the user backlash.

It didn't take long for pop-ups to become the most universally hated part of online life. By the early 2000s, pop-up blockers were standard on most web browsers and the worst of the pop-up era was over. But that doesn't mean that advertisers stopped looking for "creative" ways to grab our attention online.


Why Annoying Ads Work

While old-school pop-ups are rare nowadays, there are plenty of ways that advertisers still hold us hostage for content. There are "prestitial" ads that block the whole screen as a website loads, forcing you to wait 15 seconds before clicking "continue to site." There are "interstitial" ads that display after you visit the site. Some preloading ads on videos can be skipped after five seconds, others can't (has 30 seconds ever felt so long?). And there are videos that expand — with sound! — if you accidentally hover your mouse over the ad.

Why would advertisers and content providers continue to risk alienating users with ads that most people try to skip or close as quickly as possible?


One reason is that they work. In general, "rich media" ads that contain video or other interactive elements are more engaging to online consumers, says John Dinsmore, a marketing professor at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. That expanding video screen that launches when you hover your mouse over an ad for two seconds is called a lightbox ad or hover ad. Google, which created the lightbox format, claims that they are "six to eight times more engaging than a static video box," says Dinsmore.

One study showed that the top 10 highest-performing pop-up ads had an impressive conversion rate of 9.28 percent (conversion rate means a person took action — such as going to the advertised website — after viewing the ad). One marketing expert found that adding a hover ad to his site increased sales by 162 percent and newsletter subscriptions by 86 percent.


The Better Way to Do Internet Advertising

Michael McNulty is the product marketing manager for rich media for Sizmek, a marketing company that gives advertisers a huge selection of online ad formats to play with, from standard banner ads to full-screen "expandables" (ads that expand to cover the whole screen when clicked on) and "pushdowns" (ads that push the site content down as they expand).

As with any piece of technology, McNulty explains, there are smart ways and careless ways to deploy it. It starts with targeting. Like it or not, your every move on the internet is likely being tracked and sold to advertisers. By analyzing your search terms and browsing history, for example, Google might know that you're in the market for a new vehicle, preferably a hybrid SUV that can seat seven. While McNulty would never advise a carmaker to blast a flashy video ad at every random web user, in your specific case, a high-impact ad for a seven-seater hybrid SUV could really pay off.


"If you have marketing agencies that go the extra mile to know what users want and what they respond to, you're giving them a reason to watch something you're putting in front of them whether it's obtrusive or not," McNulty says.

McNulty says at Sizmek, the default setting for all rich media ads is to only launch if it's user-initiated. Meaning, the user has to click "expand" before the interactive video window will launch — no videos that automatically play or pop-ups. But ultimately, he doesn't control what the client and their creative team want to do with the tools that Sizmek provides. Those settings can be tweaked to deliver whatever ad experience the client wants, including the bad kind.

Annoying, untargeted, unwanted ads poses a big threat to the future of the entire ad-supported internet. Instead of just turning on pop-up blockers in their browsers, more people are installing ad-blocking software that kills all ads, even the relatively benign ones.

If a content website can't serve you ads, it can't pay the bills. And that could mean less "free" internet and more charges for consumers to access a website, read a blog post, or watch a video.