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Online Ads That Are Irksome--and Effective


Raise your hand if you like junk mail. What, nobody? O.K., who enjoys telemarketing calls? Still no takers? Fortunately for advertisers, it doesn't much matter. Advertising isn't a popularity contest, and consumers often dislike ad tactics that work. Direct mail. Inane TV jingles. Perfume-infused magazines. Annoying, yes, but they get the job done. That's important to keep in mind when evaluating the Web's latest ad phenomenon, the pop-under.

If you don't know already, a pop-under is a screen that launches beneath your browser window while you visit a site such as MSN, Weather.com, or Yahoo! (YHOO) Most surfers don't notice them until they close their browser and find the pop-under ads lurking on their desktops, hawking a company or a product.

That's not to everybody's liking. Christine Mohan, a manager at New York Times Digital, says reaction to the site's pop-under ads has been mixed. "In the beginning, people were taken aback--they didn't know where it was coming from," she says. That's an understatement. Everyone I've talked to about pop-unders, which began cluttering desktops last year, had much stronger words. "They're horrible," says my neighbor Joy. "Please tell me you're writing about how they're going away soon."

Sorry, Joy. The Times and others will continue to offer pop-unders--and that's smart. Assuming ads must be lovable is a myth the Internet community has to get over, and soon. Dot-coms produced years of creative, cute--and ultimately useless--television advertising.

Pop-unders, on the other hand, are a powerful marketing vehicle. Take X10, easily the best-known user of the format. Since launching a pop-under campaign this spring, the wireless camera maker has risen from obscurity to become the fourth most visited site on the Web, outstripping even the likes of e-tailer Amazon.com (AMZN) and auction site eBay (EBAY). X10 won't talk about results, but it's hard to ignore the brand-building boost it has gotten from pop-unders. Consumers may complain about those ads, but they've seen them.

Other businesses are testing the pop-under waters. They cost more than banner ads--about $5 per 1,000 impressions, vs. $1 for banners. Early adopters say they're worth it. Discount e-tailer Half.com Inc. says traffic is up 66% since it began using pop-under ads on MyPoints.com and The New York Times's site. Diet company Nutri/System Inc. has an even better claim: Not only are pop-unders driving site traffic, the visitors are buying. "We are definitely seeing sales," says Chris Dominello, vice-president of marketing. "It's a format that works."

And it's on a lot of desktops. Online ad network Fastclick.com Inc. has seen sales of pop-unders nearly double every month since November, says CEO David Gross. In that time, the company has served more than 2 billion pop-unders for 20 advertisers on 4,000 sites. Why the surge? Pop-unders are larger than either pop-up or banner ads, and can present more complex graphics. They contain anything from discounts to mysterious teasers. "It's a richer ad with more story to tell," Gross says.

Despite such enthusiasm, there are doubters. Analyst Marissa Gluck of Jupiter Media Metrix says pop-unders are a mirage. The impressive 10% click-through rate some have shown isn't as good as it seems: Most visitors leave within seconds. Only about 4% of them really look at the site, she found in a study.

Still, 4% is better than the sub-1% most banner ads turn in today. More importantly, 4% is better than less-than-popular--but ultimately effective--ad strategies already in use. Only 1.2% of Sunday newspaper coupons get redeemed. In direct mail, a 2% response is typical. Telemarketers know most folks will just hang up. These tactics elicit consumer groans--yet respectable response rates. That's why they're still around. If the early returns are any guide, pop-under ads will be with us for a long while, no matter how much we hate them. By Ellen Neuborne


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