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What Consumers Hate about Online Ads

What Consumers Hate about Online Ads Brad Berens

Cia Romano, chief executive officer and founder of Interface Guru, is an evangelist for end users, researching and reporting on why user-centered design for the web, intranets, software and kiosks is mandatory for success. A hands-on user interface expert, Cia has developed the Usable Times 5 criteria for ranking computer screen effectiveness. The metric, based on her usability lab studies, focuses on user response to five factors consistently observed in the lab: orientation, permission, interactivity, relevance and speed.

This month, Interface Guru is mounting a new study about how users respond to online advertising, so I sat down with Cia Romano to chat about the study, ad usability, consumer attitudes and more.

Brad Berens: What can you tell us about the study that your company is launching this month?

Cia Romano: As usability researchers for six years, we've seen the reactions of users to online advertising while we are testing for content usability. Reactions range from annoyance to indifference. Over the hundreds of lab tests we've conducted, I have yet to see a person say, "Wow, that's a cool ad. May I click on it?"

More often we hear, "Here's where they're trying to sell me something." What we see repeatedly is that ads, unless they appear at the appropriate time and place, are devalued as compared to content (i.e., if users click on an ad they thought was content, their response is, "oh, it's just an ad"). So at a minimum, it's in the best interests of advertisers to make sure their ads are clearly presented as such, because users are in the driver's seat-- and they want to choose the experience path. They will look at ads, but only once they have found their content target, or at least are confident that they are on the right path to the desired content.

So we at Interface Guru feel it's time to measure user response to online advertising specifically. We're funding our own study to provide advertisers an objective look at what works and what doesn't, in the hope that advertisers and their agencies will come closer to what users really want to experience. We have an issue with the term "interactive agency," because animation is not interaction-- it's essential that those who design so-called interactive advertising pay attention to human-computer interaction, or they may be undermining themselves and their clients.

Until the study is complete, our advice to online advertisers: Don't try to fool users, place ads at a relevant point on the experience path, give the users some control, and they are likelier to pay attention to an ad.

Berens: We talk a lot about the usability of websites, but what about the usability of advertisements? Aside from a clear "close" button, have you found any hot issues on how usability of an ad can impact a brand positively or negatively?

Romano: The usability of advertisements is precisely what we intend to examine in our study in May. Users want control that extends beyond the "close" button-- they want to decide how, when and in what form they experience content. We planned the study because of user irritation we've seen as a byproduct of over six years of testing for content usability. Smart advertisers need to understand the how-when-in-what-form, or users will decide it for them.

A few quick "hot issues"-- auto-launch of audio is probably the greatest irritant. Users want to interact, so a better choice is to let them know that audio is available, and then provide controls so that users can invoke the audio when -- and as many times -- as they want to. Another ad format users hate are ads that move to obscure content. Pop-ups that appear on top of a home page -- before the user has had a chance to see what's available on the page -- are another common complaint.

It's the social equivalent of inviting friends to dinner, then asking them to buy Tupperware when they arrive at your doorstep. At least say hello first and let them come inside before you start to pitch them-- unless, of course, you don't mind offending them.

Berens: Building on that last question, is it just the usability of the ad itself or something else?

Romano: While we are designing a study to specifically evaluate the usability of ads, the web experience makes it difficult to isolate ads from content. The two are so "intertwingled" that the distinctions easily made in other media (think print or broadcast, where ads are immediately identifiable) are difficult to make on websites.

Frequently, ads are made to resemble content, and vice-versa. The rules of engagement, so to speak, vary from site to site. So users must constantly reframe their reference points.

Advertising is necessary, and can be beneficial. What we are raising is the idea that advertisers may be shooting themselves in the foot through inappropriate placement or presentation.

Berens: Can we get more granular on the audio question? Sure, users don't like their computers to start barking at them any more than some people want their cars to talk to them ("the door is ajar"). But surely there are different kinds of audio. Our friends at Rovion, for example, have great results with their greenscreen floating spokespeople, and if a user mouses over there's a clear close button. But with Rovion the ads are, I think, nearly always custom created for the site.

Romano: This clearly addresses the issue of relevance, so it makes sense that these implementations are more successful.

Berens: Oddcast's avatars are a similar example. Are some non-user-initiated audio executions better than others? Is it really about the audio in and of itself, or is it about the irrelevance of the audio to the content, or is that a false choice?

Romano: Well, one reality is that we never know from where a user is accessing online content-- say, from work, where an autolaunch of audio can be embarrassing. If the audio is irrelevant in the experience path, users are doubly irritated, and due to the haphazard placement of ads in the web experience, irrelevance to the user is a common problem.

This topic is a complex one. My initial take is that content-oriented sites, such as news sites, have a different problem than entertainment sites. NASCAR fans are happy to hear their favorite racers. If I go to the website for a movie I love -- say, "V for Vendetta" -- I am likely to enjoy hearing the voice of the hero, or the soundtrack. But those are highly targeted properties. Mass-media sites face more of a challenge because they are serving diverse audiences on diverse topics. What one person loves -- say, celebrity gossip -- may be completely off-putting to a user who came to read real news.

Berens: When there is a negative user response to an ad, do you have any general insight about who gets the blame? Can we reliably say that it's the brand/advertiser, the publisher or some combo platter?

Romano: You have it in the correct order -- brand/advertiser first, publisher second. Except in the case of membership or association sites, where users have high expectations of the publisher. Then the order is inverted.

Berens: The adware companies -- particularly WhenU and Claria -- have done a lot of work to make it clear that the ads they serve up onto a user's desktop are coming from their companies, rather than from the online publishers. Do you think that the distinction they're drawing is legible to users?

Romano: Unfortunately, no. The general noise-to-signal ratio online makes it extremely difficult for users to tell who's who, and they will not make that effort. They will simply filter, or block, the ads -- and then they become what we call "Tunnelvision Man," who has to narrow the field of view just to be able to see the content they came for in the first place.

It's funny that the more objects we place on screens, the less users see.

"What's unique about our marketing effort for Fiesta is that we're focusing on bilingual to Spanish-dominant Hispanic consumers," David Rodriguez, Ford's multicultural communications manager, said. "Digital advertising will play a key role because we know that Hispanics over-index compared to average consumers on their use of the internet."

Alex Levine, social media strategist for PACO, praised the Fiesta Elslider website, a seamless English, Spanglish, Spanish-language toggle.

"I love what Ford is doing in terms of marketing to Latinos," Levine said. "They have a sleek, fully bilingual website. Beyond that, they also are on Twitter where they provide a culturally relevant, Spanglish, approachable conversation."

Ford also did a great job of integrating its target audience by casting three early career creative Latinos as spokespeople for the Fiesta -- all vibrant, socially conscious Spanglish speakers: Ellie, a musician; Alex, an aspiring actor; and Xavi, a spoken-word artist. Each spokesperson highlighted the Fiesta's features of design, technology, and fuel efficiency via entertaining YouTube webisodes. In the first week alone, the Fiesta webisodes had more than 500,000 views.

Additionally, the 2011 Fiesta campaign paid off with its target audience by finding homes on favorite bilingual music-oriented content websites: BoomOnline.com, HolaMun2.com, LaMusica.com, LATV.com, QuePasa.com, and SiTV.com.

Ford didn't overlook the mobile market either. "Ready Pa' Tu Mundo" was available on Telemundo Móvil, Terra Mobile, Univision Móvil, and Yahoo Mobile en Español.

Hispanicweekly.com praised Ford's campaign as a "digital win." In Ford showrooms, the Fiesta sold more than 1,000 vehicles to Hispanics in the first four months of the campaign, and 125,000 people have shown interest in ordering them. According to U.S. News, the 2011 Ford Fiesta ranked No. 3 in affordable small cars, and Ford's sales rose 25 percent. The success of the campaign encouraged Ford to follow up with "Ready Pa' Tu Mundo 2.0" for its second quarter in 2011.

Clorox cleans up its act with Latinos
Blunder: Clorox fumbled last year -- one of many times -- when it released a misguided and inflammatory press release based on a "study" stereotyping Latinas as "natural born cleaners."

The press release claimed that "cleaning was a rite of passage" for Latinas, and the backlash was swift, including a call for a Clorox boycott that started on the feminist site Jezebel.com.

Making things right: To clean up its act, Clorox redefined its messaging tactics and revamped its website by concentrating on one Latino traditional value: family. In April, Clorox reunited with Univision (the Spanish-language network that reaches 97 percent of U.S. Latino households) for its second-annual primetime special "Intimamente... Compartiendo Entre Amigas" ("Intimately... Sharing Among Friends"). This cross-platform initiative echoed themes relevant to how Latina women run their households and share with amigas. "Our Latina consumers wanted more practical information about maintaining healthy and happy lives and homes -- and we were happy to once again partner up with Clorox to serve them," David Lawenda, president of advertising sales and marketing for Univision, said. "We will keep the conversation going across all of our platforms and continue to connect Latinas with each other and our marketing partners."

Clorox and Univision included a social media aspect to engage Latina audiences with Compartiendoentreamigas.com, which encouraged viewers to post their experiences and videos online. The prime-time special also featured "Tu Mundo Tu Voz" ("Your World Your Voice"), an interactive contest where viewers can upload a video to Univision.com featuring a question they would like to ask Karla Martinez, host of the Latino version of "Good Morning America." The winner of the video upload contest will fly to Miami and interview Martinez.

"Clorox site content is clean, culturally relevant -- images reflect the culture and language," Hasselwander said. "Language toggle is clearly linked; no dead links; very easy to find things. These sound like 'basics,' but many, many sites fall down on the basics when it comes to Spanish/Latino."

Clorox.com is versatile because of its easy-to-find "en Español" link, which quickly transforms the site into Spanish (sorry, no Spanglish) with five simple navigation tabs that offer special coupons, product line info, pointers on how to clean better, and Clorox commercials featuring Latino families.

Clorox.com also launched an online wellness campaign with Latina celebrity doctor Aliza Lifshitz after finding out that 56 percent of Hispanics were "not concerned" with the flu or about getting vaccinated. This initiative won Clorox a bronze medal at the 2010 REGGIE Awards in the Multicultural/Ethnic category, and a three-point increase in sales.

One thing Clorox learned from its past PR blunders is to connect with its target audience's values, and to do away with stereotypes by way of occupation, race, or gender.

Best Buy translates sales en Español
Blunder: Best Buy set off the "discrimination alarms" when it experimented online with its en Español site by advertising a soccer game image on a TV screen instead of the football game image that was shown on the general market website, causing many Hispanics to question the tactic.

"They're thinking, 'If you're doing this to me here, what else are you changing?'" Ana Grace, global web team product manager for Best Buy, said.

As a consequence, skeptical Latino customers would browse the en Español site and then jump onto the English-language version to verify that they were getting the same price. Note to Best Buy: Skeptical customers do not translate into sales.

Making things right: At the end of the day, U.S. Latinos want to be treated like Americans, so Best Buy learned to tread lightly and become better acquainted with the values of the U.S. Latino -- it had to learn to hablar en Español.

Best Buy has come up as a topic of conversation not only with marketers I've interviewed but also in my research of the Hispanic market -- and all praise the brand for its campaign efforts. Best Buy en Español has been an innovator by making the full site available in Spanish. That sounds very basic, but full-blown bilingual websites are very rare.

"The success of the website has certainly made other brands take a second look at their own web presences," Levine said. "However, they do have a very well-utilized Spanish forum so that has tremendous value for their Latino consumers."


Grace said she not only credits Best Buy's successful efforts with Latinos, but she also endorses its little helper, Motion Point,  a web translation service provider that solves the problem of offering the same web content in multiple languages without imposing a lot of technical complexity on the website operator.

And no, Motion Point doesn't have robots translating. Real humans using technology are actually decoding the nuances of the Spanish language that vary from country to country (but of course, it's not a perfect system). According to Forbes, this kind of detail to attention has translated into sales, making Best Buy a leader in online electronics for U.S. Latinos.

Moral of the story
Making mistakes is part of the evolution of becoming better marketers, and in so many cases redemption can be found in both a brand's reaction to the blunder, and its proactive approach to U.S. Latinos. Even details as specific as understanding the cultural holidays Latinos observe in the U.S. can be hugely beneficial to creating more effective online sales and coupon campaigns. For example, Best Buy en Español ran a Three Kings Day special after Christmas to attract Latino customers.

So, do your homework before marketing to U.S. Latinos by building focus groups, hiring a multicultural marketing agency that cares and knows the group best, and finding engaging ways to communicate.

"Brands seem to be marketing to Latinos as an afterthought and/or they only allocate a minuscule portion of their marketing budget to this gigantic portion of the U.S. population," Levine said. "Multicultural marketers/agencies exist in part so this doesn't happen; content not only needs to be in Spanish, but it needs to be culturally relevant."

The question isn't whether it's worth marketing to U.S. Latinos. It's "why haven't you started?"

Dita Quiñones is an editorial intern for iMedia Connection and a freelance multi-media journalist specializing in music, entertainment, and politrix for Latina Magazine/Latina.com, Chiat/Day, Nissan, Pepsi, GN$F!, CobWorldOrder.com, and WeTheWest.com.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.


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A trusted advisor to companies of all sizes and a respected voice within the interactive media industry, Dr. Brad Berens has enjoyed a wide-ranging career that features storytelling as an organizing theme. These days, he divides his time among...

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2010, September 18