New research suggests that ads that complement online content can be effective — but not if they rouse consumers’ privacy concerns.
Marketers have increasingly been using the Web as a vehicle to reach customers, but companies have sometimes struggled to figure out exactly how to transmit information about a product relevant to a consumer without breaching that individual’s personal sense of privacy. It’s a fine line, and some businesses have successfully straddled it — witness the effectiveness of the sponsored text ads that appear on Google’s search results — while numerous others have failed. Some recent research provides some guidance. The study was conducted by Avi Goldfarb, associate professor of marketing at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, and Catherine Tucker, an assistant professor of marketing at the MIT Sloan School of Management. They described their findings in an October 2009 working paper entitled “Online Display Advertising: Targeting and Intrusiveness.” Goldfarb and Tucker had access to a database that tracked almost 2,900 different online ad campaigns for a wide range of products. The data, collected by a media marketing company from 2001 to 2008, contained the survey responses of a total of more than 2 million consumers — an average of about 850 for each ad campaign. For any particular product, half the survey participants, selected at random, were exposed to the ad and the other half were not but did visit the Web site where the ad had appeared. The study participants were asked a number of questions, including their likely intent to purchase the specific product in question. The researchers’ findings? “Advertisements that match both Web site content and are highly visible do worse at increasing purchase intent than ads that do only one or the other.” In particular, Goldfarb and Tucker investigated the effectiveness of two types of ads: those that complement the content of a Web page (such as an ad for a hotel chain that is displayed on a travel Web site) and those that are highly visible (including pop-ups and full-screen ads, video and audio ads, and ads that move across a Web page). The results show that, with respect to a consumer’s stated intent to purchase a product being marketed, complementary context-based ads are three times as effective as regular online ads, and high-visibility ads are two times as effective.