mambo dance instructions on the street
PHOTO: John Henderson

Anyone who wants to read content for free online has a wealth of options. Advertising is the main source of revenue for these content-oriented websites and news apps. Their economic survival depends on their ability to display ads that readers notice — and that’s fine for most consumers. 

No one believes these sites can exist without some way of making money. Sure, a few organizations, such as Wikipedia, can live on donations and major news outlets such as the New York Times can entice readers to subscribe. Otherwise, ads and sponsored content is the only thing standing between success and shutting down.

Consumers visiting these content sites are often bombarded with marketing. It may be ads or sponsored content designed to grab attention. Unfortunately, for marketers, the average consumer has become immune to ads and content that serves a predominantly marketing purpose. Marketers have to go to great lengths to get a consumer to pay attention to their ads and content and, hopefully, click through to an ecommerce site to make a purchase. Video, audio, popup text, and graphics —it’s all in the mix as companies vie for eyeballs.

How to Alienate Your Audience in 5 Easy Steps

In the effort to get consumers to pay attention, however, marketers and content sites make a number of mistakes that only alienate their potential audience. People of all ages share five common complaints with the techniques that marketers use to feed us ads and sponsored content.

Insist Visitors Disable Privacy Software

Privacy and security software will often block ads. It blocks ads for a number of reasons, including expired security certificates or links to ad networks that are blacklisted owing to dangerous content. This software is designed to protect us from bad actors, misbehaving ads and abusive content. Ad blockers even help to block malware by blocking ad networks that harbor dangerous software. In response, some sites will insist that consumers shut off malware protection or provide an exception for the site in the security program.

Consumers are not stupid. They understand there is a reason this software exists in the first place — to protect them from hackers. To expect a consumer to open themselves up to security threats in order to get served an ad is unconscionable. It’s also sloppy craftsmanship. Rather than fix a site so that it is secure and respects privacy, lazy content sites and advertisers expect consumers to put themselves in harm’s way.

Excessive Ads or Content-Blocking Ads

Speaking of blocking ads, excessive ads definitely provoke anger. It’s not the existence of ads per se — it’s more a matter that the page is so full of them, you can’t read the content. Some sites have ads on the margins, header and footer, as well as the middle of the page. Mobile apps do the same, with large chunks of tiny real estate on a smartphone taken up with ads. Excessive ads only make viewing the content impossible.

Some sites are even worse, with popup ads that obscure the close button. Here is a consumer, a potential customer, trying to read something and there's this big ugly ad in the middle of the page that they can’t figure out how to shut down. It only takes a few instances of this sort of content blocking for consumers to abandon the site or app forever.

Excessive ads and content blocking ads obscure content from the reader. This, in turn, diminishes motivation to return to the site. It’s playing the short game when you need to be looking after the long-term.

Insist on Cookies

HTTP is sessionless. Complex web applications and sites require a way to track movement across pages and actions, i.e. a session. A number of web development frameworks do this by including a session number in the URL calls to and from the server. Instead, a lot of sites still require an old-fashioned cookie.

Cookies were always problematic for web application designers and remain so today. They break the basic conceptual model of the browser as a sandbox that has minimal access to local resources. Cookies have been used throughout the years as a vector for security exploits. Most modern browsers allow cookies to be disabled for enhanced security, often by default. Despite that, many sites today still insist on using cookies and even on reenabling cookies. Consumers will often be asked to turn off cookies altogether for sites to work correctly.

Much of the time, the reason for the cookies is to track consumer behaviors, not to provide an enhanced experience. In other words, it’s about advertising profits. Asking a consumer to do something dangerous in order to squeeze a few extra cents from them is unethical.

Start Sound or Video When the Page Loads

Just about everyone has experienced clicking on a news or content site, having the page load, and then, abruptly and without warning, having 150 decibels of noise blast out of your headphones or speakers. This initiates the desperate scramble to find the computer mute button, tearing headphones off the head, and ripping the headphone or speaker wires from the computer.

Autoplaying sound and video is a common annoyance for just about anyone who uses an internet connected computer (in other words, everyone). It has become such a problem that browser developers are putting mute buttons on individual tabs and enabling overall muting of the browser as a default.

One can only wonder why any marketer continues this annoying practice. Yes, it attracts attention — but not good attention. It’s the type of behavior that engenders anger toward whoever is causing computer speakers to dance on the desktop. Thankfully, emerging technical solutions can counteract this, but there shouldn't have to be.

Beg for Ratings in Your App

The constant nagging of apps for positive ratings is another of those irritating marketing tools that needs to stop. Most mobile apps come from centralized app stores such as iTunes or the Google Play store. This feature has now extended to the desktop with the Microsoft Store (for Windows 10 Apps) and various Linux Stores that come with major distributions such as Ubuntu or Elementary OS. 

The upside of app stores for the consumer is safety, security and curation. The store ensures that dangerous or misbehaving applications do not get distributed and the ratings that other consumers gives provides a curated experience.

The unfortunate side effect of the crowdsourced rating system is that the success of applications, and often the ads that fund them, depends on positive ratings. This has led to apps that constantly ask for a positive rating. The begging for ratings has taken on a rather desperate tone, with apps interrupting basic functions to plead for a positive rating. The image of the needy app, plaintively begging for a five-star rating is a pathetic one.

Why Annoy Your Customers?

It is a mystery why marketers, and the sites that display their ads, cling to behaviors that annoy consumers. Perhaps there is the perception that these ads work. If that were the case, the market for privacy trackers and ad blockers wouldn't be thriving. The fact that it is shows consumers hate these types of ads. 

Browser developers would not be putting time and effort into muting tabs and browsers and disabling autoplay if consumers were scrambling for their content to come on immediately. These practices are just short-term approaches to achieving immediate goals. They are harmful in the long-term to brands and content sites.

Many years ago, management thought leader Tom Peters was speaking of car company Saturn’s approach to women buyers. He talked about their brilliant marketing strategy which was “Don’t insult them!” His story rings true today, but for all consumers. These marketing techniques aimed at grabbing attention only annoy and insult their potential customers. It’s a not a good long-term strategy.