Do ads have to be annoying to work?

I have long held the belief that advertising can be effective without being annoying; that advertising that is respectful, additive and relevant will ultimately rise to the top.

Unfortunately market forces don’t always seem to agree – annoying advertising continues to thrive, and the rise of adblocking feels inexorable. So am I wrong? Or is there a path to advertising that is both mindful of user experience and effective for those paying for it?

We’ve spent the last year studying ad annoyance. Our hope is that understanding what ads people enjoy the least will help us create better user experiences and even stem the pernicious rise of adblocking. Across a range of digital ad formats, our analytics team studied the self-reported drivers of ad annoyance relative to the salient drivers of ad performance. With 11 different types of ads built around the same core content, we set out to understand which would perform best and annoy the least.

What people tell us annoys them

We first wanted to understand how annoyance varies across demographics and devices, and to map drivers of ad annoyance in general. In the self-reported phase of the study, over 3,500 adults were asked about their agreement with a range of statements about digital ads.

Of our sample, 26% reported being bothered by all ads. We found that lighter digital users (less than four hours per day) are the most averse to ads altogether; perhaps those that consume more content have become numb to bad ads, or blind to them entirely.

Those who find ads annoying also tend to be concerned about privacy; this is the strongest relationship in our drivers analysis. Poor user experiences (especially those involving video and audio auto-starts) also correlated strongly with use of adblockers. One in four US desktop internet users reportedly use an adblocker – eMarketer June 2016 – while in the UK the figure is one in five – IAB August 2016.

Worryingly for ad-supported business models, we found no relationship between adblocker usage and a willingness to accept advertising in return for free content; this value exchange is not well understood or accepted. It seems to me that most people who block ads don’t know what they are stealing from whom. This is a belief I’ve held for some time – well understood property rights are key to any efficient market, and lacking in digital media. Perhaps the silver lining is that public education may help stem the adblocking tide.

How people respond to different ad formats

In the next phase of the study, panelists were served the same creative content adapted to 11 different ad formats, including in-stream video, in-game interstitials and in-feed display across a range of simulated content environments. After exposure, we asked people about their experience of the ad (to gauge how annoying they found it) and their awareness, understanding and intent for the promoted products (to gauge how well it worked).

The differences in annoyance were marked. Interruptive in-game ads, skippable in-stream video, and display overlay formats annoyed roughly one in three people on average, whereas just under half as many found the natural break, rich media and vertical formats annoying. We also used free word association to get some more qualitative insight. The most annoying formats were associated with words like 'popped up' and 'unexpected', whereas adjectives like 'interesting', 'informative' and 'simple' were used to describe the most pleasing.

Interestingly, one variable that didn’t correlate with annoyance was effectiveness. On average, the more annoying formats did not perform significantly better at driving lift in awareness, intent or understanding channels. Being annoying doesn’t pay. These findings tell us that a little respect for user experience makes for effective ads that don’t upset people. Intuitive perhaps, but something we are proud to have proven with data.

Can we call a winner?

It would be asinine to declare one format the winner forever from a single study. Digital is constantly in flux; today’s cutting edge media experiences will be obsolete frighteningly soon and consumer perceptions are shifting faster yet. However no matter the specific format, one conclusion seems clear: received media wisdom promotes 'disruption' as key to success – but in digital this could not be further from the truth. We need to put audiences first.

This doesn’t mean being so innocuous as to blend into the wallpaper. It means that in increasingly intimate and scarce media environments, ads should enhance the experience with functionality or fun, not detract from it, and we must use all the data and technology at our disposal to make ads as relevant, respectful and effective as we can.

Andrew Shebbeare is founder and chief product officer at Essence

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