Common Denominators between Targeting, Advertisement and Usability
Lately I have read and watched many interesting pieces on the importance of using advertisement and targeting in a positive way. It all started with Isaac Waisberg's discussion on the unintended consequences of targeting. He discusses the subject of targeting in the online world and how it can decrease the chances of discovering new ideas (or products) when browsing on websites as opposed to "browsing offline". He suggests the following idea:
(...) one especially important unintended consequence of targeting and personalization is that by exposing the user to variations of the same, the chances of discovery by serendipity decrease considerably.
In the same lines, Eli Pariser (author of The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You) describes on his TED talk (below) the phenomenon happening in the news, search and social network websites: by tailoring search results based on user interest, the search/news provider can alienate its users into one field. The presenter provides an example where two of his friends searched for "Egypt" and while one got mainly political related results, the other got mainly travel related results.
When using targeting techniques on websites (especially for advertisement, but also for product recommendation and content delivery) we should also have in mind a principle by David Ogilvy (author of Confessions of an Advertising Man): "The more informative your advertising, the more persuasive it will be." That is also the idea behind Ads Worth Spreading, an interesting initiative by TED with the intent to "reverse the trend of online ads being aggressively forced on users."
Below I share some of my thoughts on how to use advertisement (and other elements that affect overall design) on websites.
Banner And Design Blindness
In 1998 (!) Jan Panero Benway and David M. Lane wrote an article entitled Banner Blindness: Web Searchers Often Miss Obvious Links where they coined the term Banner Blindness ("people searching for specific information on the web tend to ignore large, colorful items that are clearly distinguished from other items on the page"). They conclude the article with the following statement:
The first study demonstrated that banner blindness occurs, although some users did eventually find the banners when there was no other way to find the required information. The second experiment showed that in some cases, banners will be entirely missed by searching users. Use of a small amount of animation and common region grouping did not mitigate the effect. It also showed that "banner" blindness can occur with text items that do not look like advertisements. So, although web users may learn to ignore advertisements and other graphics which look like advertisements, the phenomenon of ignoring salient items while searching for specific items is wider than just an advertising effect.
What we learn from the study, besides that too prominent banners can (and will) be missed, is that this applies also to other website design elements. This is critical knowledge when designing call to actions, as sometimes we are advised to create bigger and brighter buttons and links, which might be harmful from a certain prominence level. I believe that prominence behaves similarly to a normal distribution, i.e. as the prominence of a banner/link increases, its efficiency to draw attention increases, until a certain point, where it starts to decrease.
Usability Tips for Banners and Call To Actions
Following several split tests and usability tests, I believe the following can be very helpful when building a high converting website, even when using advertisement.
First give, than ask what you want: there is a classic Israeli song about the good old days, where "people would extend their hand to give, not only to take". Websites should do the same, before asking for information or selling something or showing ads, provide something of value to customers.
Make Call to Actions prominent, but not too prominent: when the request is too strong, customers might get suspicious.
Be sure to support all browsers: if, for example, you accept Flash ads on your site, always include a fallback file to appear to site visitors whose systems don't support Flash.