This is the first of many pieces that was written by myself and my partner, Jamie Gerrard.
“The other night I did something that I haven’t done in a decade. I did something that I never thought I would have to do ever again. I did something that I never wanted to do ever again. I installed an ad blocker. Everyone is installing ad blockers. It’s not that I’m appalled at the ads that I’m seeing. Rather, I’m overwhelmed by the sheer volume of ads that permeate the web. They bring websites to their knees and reduce browsing speed to a crawl. More than anything, they’re just no fun from a user experience standpoint.” This is the gist of a series of text messages I received from Jamie at 7:30am last week. Jamie and I agreed. No one is enjoying waiting for ads to run their course or clicking on unlimited x’s or scrolling up to see why the entire page they were viewing is now grayed out. So if no one likes this sea of advertising, why are there so many ads? There is plenty of blame to go around. Let’s talk first about why we see this and then how we can fix the problem.
Most industries are incredibly competitive. Once a company unearths a niche market, competitors line up to get a piece of that pie. The result is the struggle for consumer spending. Whether it’s a car company, or a shoe maker or a soda brand, there’s only so much money to go around and if you’re going to spend money, you’re obviously going to go where the people are. Sure, print ads and billboards can still have some impact, people spend all day every day online, surfing the web. The web is where the people are and so it’s where brands have to be. The result is that a huge portion of advertising budgets is spent trying to dominate web advertising. This runs the gamut, from social media advertising to YouTube ads to click-throughs. As the market becomes crowded, brands focus on working with marketing agencies that will get them the most bang for their buck and in many cases leave most of the details to the agency.
The world wide web is the wild wild west of advertising. There’s only so much real estate and everyone is trying to strike oil. For many agencies, the solution lies in the “suburbs” model. They just put up a whole bunch of stuff that all looks identical and hope somebody buys something. Have you ever driven through a really huge suburb where every street is the same and you couldn’t find a specific house if your life depended on it? In many cases, this is where we’re at for online marketing. This is not a condemnation of marketing or advertising. Quite the opposite. When it’s done right, advertising is the blessed union of great products and an understanding of psychology. There are agencies doing some really incredible work for really great brands. But an awful lot of people are taking shortcuts. Loading a web page with ads is that shortcut and while it may frustrate the vast majority of users, we’re left asking a very important question; is anybody clicking on these things?
The answer, sadly, is yes. Those ads that you see that just slather a web page with flashing lights and catchy offers are actually still pretty lucrative. Because many of them require minimal coding and planning, the return on investment CAN be quite impressive. Have you ever seen a man dressed in a chicken suit, standing on the side of the road, spinning a sign around, trying to get you to come in to buy a new car? Do you know why they do that? They do it because it works. We are, as a species, amused by shiny things and things that twirl. We’re naturally curious. So when we see something that MIGHT be interesting, we have a tendency to head down that rabbit hole. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s how we operate. It’s human nature. And ads are not the problem. I like ads. I don’t click on them, but I like them. But what we don’t like is when ads become a war of attrition where you click on a link simply because you literally can’t see where else you could possibly click on the page. Advertising, done this way, ruins the web from a user experience standpoint and as you can imagine, we’re not ok with that. So how do we fix it?
User Experience (UX)
First off, we need to start building sites that fit with our natural tendencies as a user. Too often, sites are thrown together without considering how the user will get from point a to point b and how much they’ll enjoy the journey. Jamie got into UX because he really wanted to create an experience for the user, not just to build sites. He wanted to create something that would really draw the user in. It’s not easy to combine beautiful design with advertising but the truly great and wonderful things in the world are not supposed to be easy and anything worth doing is worth doing right. The web is the obvious platform for a brand to advertise their product. It’s the obvious place and it’s the right place but it needs to be done right. Remember, this is not about the quality of ads, this is about the quantity of ads. We are not talking about well placed, well thought out marketing campaigns. We’re fine with those. Those can stay. We’re talking about pushing out a site where over half of the space is taken up with lowest common denominator style advertising.
As the brand, we need to make sure that we’re partnering with agencies and organizations that understand human psychology as it relates to the user experience. Avoid those people that tell you that your ad will be seen by millions and instead focus on those who understand that marketing is about targeting the right people with the right ads in the right way at the right time. Conversion is the only number that you should really care about when you’re working on your marketing budget. You want to attract the right client. You don’t want to trick someone into becoming a one-time buyer.
As agencies, we need to focus on doing it right. We all understand that advertising is a numbers game, but we also know that you can’t get water from a stone. If we don’t change the way we market, we will saturate the web to a point where people avoid it and avoid our advertising. We all know that doing it right is better than doing it a lot. So we need to do it right.
And understand that as the user, YOU ultimately hold the power over what these companies do and how they do it. If users continue to click on one of the hundreds of popups that mar their display, people will continue to use popups as an advertising plan. We know that we shouldn’t buy a car because of the guy in the chicken suit spinning the sign but we need to put our spending money where our mouth is.
No one is happy installing ad blockers. No one is happy that this type of junk mail style advertising crashes their browser and ruins their web experience. And you don’t have to be a UX Designer to feel that way. If you asked 100 people how they feel about this style of marketing, you’ll hear a lot of nays and the odd expletive. So let’s commit to doing things right. As brands, as agencies, as users and as designers, we each have a role to play in making the Internet fun again.