Volume 1, Number 2
May 1, 2006


The Electronic Mosquito
by Nick Baumgardner

The buzzing of Internet pop-up ads and if they actually work.

Every single surfer of the World Wide Web has been there on one occasion or another. Whether attempting to download an important file for the office, trying to read the morning online edition of their favorite newspaper or simply trying to get a good look at a picture of the President choking on a pretzel, the complete and utter annoyance of the pop-up ad seems to consistently be burrowing its way into our current electronic culture.

But are they even necessary? Does the attempt to advertise by means of purely annoying someone actually sell a product? Is the entire notion of the pop-up one that has merely failed with the development of pop-up blockers and new anti-pop-up web browsers? Or are they simply the best form of electronic advertising present today? These are questions that may be tougher to answer than you think.

A shift in the norm

Over the past five years or so, the general public seems to be shifting its priority as to where it wishes to get information, mainly moving from the television set to the computer and internet.

In a May 2005 article by Pamela Parker for ClickZ News, she states, "Online budgets are set to swell $26 billion, or 8 percent of total advertising and marketing spending, by 2010. That's according to a new five-year forecast by Forrester Research" (Parker 1). In addition, an August 2003 article for CNETnews.com stated that nearly $11.3 billion was spent on pop-up advertising in the first seven months of 2002.

Pop-ups can certainly be a bother. There is no question of how bothersome pop-up ads can be, but are they really worth the hassle?

While this could serve as a problem for major television and print advertising firms, for the common web traveler however, the major concern could be that of a larger influx of pop up-ads. But once again, does this method of online advertising that seems to be more of a nuisance than a positive information tool actually work?

What the studies show

It seems to be a common notion among e-commerce experts that this ad method has created more problems than solutions. In the aforementioned CNETnews.com article, David Croson, a visiting professor of digital strategy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests pop-ups have made an interesting league of their own.

"Pop-up ads are probably the only form of advertising that has spawned a whole industry designed to help you get them off your screen," Croson said. "I think pop-up ads have created a really strong negative response" (CNET 1).

However a study conducted by Wendy Moe, a Ph.D. professor at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin shows a slightly different result. According to Moe's study, the level of overall annoyance from pop-up advertisements is simply a result of the situation. In her study, Moe placed pop-up ads at a highly visited sight. For some users, the pop-up appeared relatively early in their visit while for others it came into play much later. The results she found were quite interesting.

"The effects varied depending on what the user's purpose at the site was," Moe said. "For users who sought out fairly in-depth information from the site, the added pop-up basically overloaded them with information. And as a result, they exited the Web site earlier than they probably would have otherwise" (CNET 1). Furthermore, Moe explained how site surfers not necessarily seeking out large amounts of information at the site often welcomed the pop-up and extended their stay on the site. (CNET 1)

However once again one must remember, these situations are customized to only the individual who is present in them.

If the notion of pop-up ads still seems to be something that is seen as an annoyance however, then why do marketers still seem to be using them?

David Reibstein, a marketing professor at the Wharton School at Pennsylvania University may have an answer.

"The pop-ups that are more effective are the ones related to the site you're looking at," Reibstein said. "Some advertisers use pop-ups everywhere, but they may be totally irrelevant to you at the time. If I want to buy a new car and there's a pop-up of a Volvo, it's much more likely to be effective" (CNET 1).

In addition, Reibstein went further to explain how the overall cost of a pop-up ad is so much more minimal than any other type of advertisement, similar to a telemarketer phone call. So in the end the harm they might cause is far worth the slight cost of putting it out there.

In a September 2004 article for Wired News by Adam L. Penenberg entitled "Ads that annoy also succeed," he quotes David Schwartz, a director of sales at Claria (an online behavioral marketing firm) as to whether spam and pop-up ads actually work.

"Spam does work, but in a relatively artless way," Schwartz said. "Since there is almost no cost associated with sending out millions of e-mails (unlike, say, with mail-order catalogs that require hefty postage), spammers require a miniscule click-through percentage" (Penenberg 1).

Penenberg went further to kill the misconception of the ineffectiveness of pop-up ads by explaining how in a mail order catalog business an advertiser spends much more money putting out their product and would be fortunate if a miniscule percentage of people actually purchase anything. While in the pop-up ad business, an advertiser would spend much less money on a pop-up promotion. Add on top of this the fact that the field of people receiving the ad is much larger and the advertiser would only need a much smaller response to make money. In short, the risk is far smaller and the profits can be much larger.

Hope for the future?

So if you are someone who has prayed day and night or begged and pleaded with internet advertisers to discontinue pop-up ads, you may want to try a little harder because they don't seem to be migrating anywhere any time soon. The simple business temptation of small risk advertising for big time profits seems to be keeping pop-up ads and spam email around for the long haul.

So much like their real life counterparts, the electronic mosquitoes may be buzzing in your face for years to come.

About the author

Nick Baumgardner is a journalism senior at Michigan State University. He loves sports, his girlfriend and television. His future plans are to become a sports beat writer.

Email: baumga43 AT msu DOT edu

Web: http://www.msu.edu/~baumga43/atw


CNET news.com. "Pop-ups annoy, but do they work?"
CNET news.com (August 2003).
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Parker, Pamela. "Study: Online Ad Budgets to Swell to $26 billion by 2010."
ClickZ News (May 2005).
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Penenberg, Adam L. "Ads that annoy also succeed."
Wired News (September 2004).
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Extended Readings

About.com. "Pop-ups: Annoying but good."
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Marketing VOX "Are Pop-ups effective?"