An End to Pop-ups? Advertisers Wince, Then Shrug

Microsoft confirmed it intends to add pop-up blocking to Internet Explorer as part of its Service Pack 2 release, due the first half of 2004. Meanwhile, agencies, advertisers and publishers suggest they’ll be ready to kiss the ad units goodbye — when the time comes.

An important question that remains unanswered is whether IE pop-up blocking will be turned on by default. Microsoft said only that it plans to include the feature, and will gather user feedback before announcing further details.

“If they turn it on by default, that would effectively kill pop-up advertising on the Web,” said Nate Elliott, an associate analyst with Jupiter Research, which shares a parent company with this site.

On the other hand, if blocking the ads is not the default setting, pop-ups will probably continue to be served. “Consumers already have plenty of access to pop-up blockers,” Elliott said. “Nearly half of people online at home have free access through their ISPs,” but only a small percentage are using them.

Pop-ups’ share of the online media pie is more than double what it was a year ago. Nielsen//NetRatings found they accounted for 7.4 percent of all online ad impressions in Q3 2003, up from 3.0 percent for the same period last year.

Despite increased use, publishers and advertisers say they’re unconcerned about the prospect of an end to pop-ups.

Jason Krebs, VP of ad sales for New York Times Digital (NYTD), said his company and the majority of online publishers would not be affected.

“I think this will continue to stimulate creative minds in the ad community to find quality ways to reach an audience and communicate with them,” he said. “You can’t stop technology and innovation, so you continue to adapt.”

Krebs claims NYTD serves very few pop-ups compared to other content, and suggested good could come of their demise in that the company’s ad offerings might be seen as “less of a commodity.”

“The half-page ads were an attempt to get people to embrace quality,” he said.

Rich LeFurgy, head of new media consultancy Archer, and co-chair of the Internet Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) pop-up taskforce, concurs. “Rich media and search are the drivers of where we’re going in the future.”

LeFurgy, charged by the IAB with preparing publisher guidelines governing pop-up use, said he doesn’t anticipate the end of pop-ups would have an impact on publishers’ bottom lines.

“I don’t think it’s going to matter,” he said. “Pop-ups are a part of the mix right now, but if they were to go away, I don’t think it would impact the revenue outlook.”

Jeff Lanctot, VP of Media for Avenue A, observes many publishers he has spoken with are singing the same tune.

“Pop-ups have been a good source of revenue for [publishers],” Lanctot said. “But most publishers I talk to feel pretty confident about the rest of the inventory they’ve got now. They’re experiencing growth in high impact brand units and other on-page advertisements, and their need for pop-ups will diminish in 2004 and beyond.”

Speaking from his agency’s standpoint, Lanctot said there’s even less cause for concern.

“A pretty small percentage of our media billings go to pop-ups. Over the past two years, it’s been well under 10 percent,” he claims. “If they went away tomorrow, we wouldn’t miss a beat.”

Other agencies and advertisers are similarly unruffled by Microsoft’s announcement.

“I don’t see it as a bad thing at all,” said Sarah Faye, president of Carat Interactive. “A very low percentage of what we do are pop-ups… maybe five percent. We’re highly sensitive to the fact that they’re not a good user experience.”

Among the most prolific marketers using pop-ups is Orbitz. The company declined to comment on the implications of the Service Pack update on its advertising strategy. Marketing Director Geoff Silvers said, “Our strategy has always been to evaluate things on a daily basis, and optimize based on what’s performing and what isn’t, and we’ll continue to do that.”

Silvers noted the industry, “continues to evolve, and it may be that a new technology will appear,” as a replacement to pop-ups, were they to disappear.

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