The pop-up implosion

There are some letters to the editor I don’t bother printing. Like this one:

“”Started reading your article about Nortel this morning but the Ads were so annoying that I stopped reading it……””

That’s the entire message, but it was flagged “”highest priority.”” I’ve responded to

this kind of thing before, and as I explained why our free news service depends on advertising support, I wondered if I should simply have some kind of form letter on hand that I could simply cut and paste into the body of an e-mail. The reader replied that he didn’t mind ads per se, but didn’t want them flashing and blinking in his face. This is a reasonable request, unless you happen to be the one representing a client worth thousands of dollars. Then it’s something to be ignored.

After than four years of working on the Internet I’ve watched the medium experiment with ad styles, and I’ve watched sites like ours struggle to accommodate the needs of marketers without sacrificing the reading experience. I won’t say we’ve always gotten it right. Sometimes it’s been a failure of design: when we launched the first version of, we included tiny box adlets in the upper corners that were supposed to look like the earboxes you might see on a broadsheet newspaper. Almost no one was interested in them. On the other hand, our one attempt at a pop-up ad triggered so much animosity we have never tried it since.

Although some standards are emerging — skyscrapers are gradually giving way to big boxes as the favoured ad unit — I don’t think anyone has determined the precise limits of reader endurance. For me, it comes with sites like Salon, which present a full-page ad you have to click through to get to certain stories (even for people like me, who actually pay a monthly subscription fee for their content). For others, it’s the animations that turn what should be easy-to-read articles into an all-singing, all-dancing vaudeville routine that does everything it can to draw your eye away from the text.

It helps to have a publisher (which I do) who’s a voracious reader himself and who puts the brakes on potentially inappropriate online ad campaigns, even when a healthy chunk of revenue is at stake. The sales manager I work with has also been great about asking my opinion and that of others before we try something new. In other organizations that’s not the case, and it creates a problem for us all when one publication goes farther than anyone else would dare. The Economist, an otherwise outstanding publication, does a disservice to this industry when it allows an online ad that turns into a thought bubble and rises out of a box and into other parts of its Web site. Canadian Business makes all our lives harder when it makes you look at a splashpage ad before you can see anything on its homepage.

Part of the problem is measurability. Although we can find out with surprising accuracy how many times this article has been viewed, we don’t know how many readers we fail to attract (or old readers we lose entirely) by inappropriate advertising. My formula is that for every letter I receive like the one above, there are many other readers who simply won’t be bothered to complain. They’ll look elsewhere.

Marketers work hard to come up with innovative, eye-catching work, and ad sales reps have little interest in critiquing them. What we need is a way for honest, constructive feedback to reach clients from those in editorial who are closer to readers and their concerns. Maybe someday there will be a more formal way of doing this, but in the meantime, you know where to find me.

Shane Schick is the editor of IT Business Pipeline.

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