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Annoying ads online could actually cost more in lost, irritated or disengaged readers than they’re worth.Getty Images/iStockphoto

Many ads are annoying. It doesn't take a scientific study to figure that out – just look at numbers from companies such as Adblock Plus, which claims its software to prevent ads from appearing online has been downloaded 300 million times.

But could annoying ads online actually cost more – in lost, irritated or disengaged readers – than they're worth?

That's the question explored in a study from Microsoft Research, to be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Marketing Research.

The study paid roughly 1,223 participants in the United States to engage in a simple online task (categorizing e-mails) and measured how quickly they abandoned the task when an annoying ad was shown at the side of the screen.

While people are not paid to visit websites such as those run by newspaper publishers, they do receive value in terms of content they want to see. By paying participants, the researchers hoped to explore how ads could override any sense of value readers may have. The study found that, indeed, participants gave up their task more quickly when they were shown annoying ads.

"We're basically saying that [publishers] would have to compensate for the ad annoyance with an increased value of the content they're delivering, or the exclusivity of the service they're providing people," said Dan Goldstein, a principal researcher at Microsoft. "It's not really free to run these ads, though it shows up as a short-term profit."

This study is not the first to suggest that there is a cost when people hate ads. According to a survey commissioned by Advertising Standards Canada in 2014, 65 per cent of Canadians have stopped buying a product because they found the company's ads "unacceptable." And people are particularly suspicious of the Web: People rated it the worst in terms of their comfort with truth and accuracy in ads, with pop-up ads online scoring dead last.

Other academic studies have found that annoying ads sometimes make people question how reputable a brand is and can cause them to want to associate less with the brand. An argument could be made that at least annoying ads are memorable. But that doesn't hold up: Research has shown people actually may be less likely to remember them.

What has not been explored is the actual cost of these types of ads.

The study began with a set-up experiment that showed people real online ads and asked them to rate them on a scale based on how annoying (or not) they were. Factors such as animation in the ad, and bad aesthetics, were common reasons for a bad rating. Once that was established, the researchers studied the impact of the annoying ones on a group of people paid to carry out the e-mail categorization task, versus two other groups doing the same, who were shown non-annoying ads or no ads at all.

People doing the task looked at one e-mail per page, and each page had two banner ads on either side – either two annoying ones, or two that were not annoying – or just white space in the margins.

The researchers experimented with different levels of pay per e-mail the participants reviewed; unsurprisingly, people who were paid more looked at more pages. But in every case, people shown annoying ads looked at fewer pages than people in the same pay scale who were shown non-annoying or no ads.

The math tells a troubling tale: Looking at the behaviours across pay scales, people in this experiment who saw bad ads had to be paid .115 cents more per page to match the level of work done by someone shown good ads, and .135 cents more to match the level of someone shown no ads at all.

That may not sound like a lot (the pay per-page for the task was relatively low because it took so little time to do), but when expanded to the cost per thousand impressions (CPM or cost-per-mille) – the metric by which ads are commonly sold – it is significant. It comes out to $1.15 CPM difference between bad ads and good ads. Considering that the CPMs of many online ads can be very low, depending on a number of factors, the revenue they provide to publishers may be outstripped by users dropping off their sites.

"It's like a microcosm in which running annoying ads is the wrong decision," Mr. Goldstein said. "By analogy, we think it's plausible that this could also transfer to actual websites. … It's not just the domain of the low-rent publishers. A high-profile publisher might be asked to run even a tasteful takeover ad on the main page, where the screen would be covered up for maybe 20 seconds and then people could carry on to read the site. … These kind of interruptive ads are becoming more prevalent."

This consideration arguably will be more important as people continue to access the Web more often from mobile devices.

"I've already seen annoying mobile ads show up on apps that I run," Mr. Goldstein said. "You open a weather app and something shows up on the bottom 20 per cent of the screen. ... Because of the limited screen size on a mobile device, you often see these interruptive ads as opposed to ads that appear next to the content. Those might even be more annoying. It's an open question, but it's certainly one that should be looked at."

What makes an ad annoying

1. Animation*: "Motion," "animate," etc.

-771 mentions out of 1,846 responses

2. Negative psychological impact: Annoying," "distracting"

-558 mentions

3. Aesthetics: "Ugly," "loud," "busy"

-435 mentions

4. Advertiser seems disreputable: "Spam," "fake," "seems like a scam"

-122 mentions

5. Bizarre logic: "Stupid," "no sense," "a dancing wizard has nothing to do with going to school"

-107 mentions

*It is worth mentioning that while animated ads were more likely to be rated as annoying, there were cases where there was very little difference between the annoyance rating of a static ad and an animated version of the same ad. And there were cases where an animated ad was seen as less annoying than a static ad for something else. Much depends on whether the reader wants to see the ad content -- such as a clip of a movie about to be released or a 360-degree view of a product -- and also design. Common sense dictates that subtle animation is much less likely to irritate people than flashing colours or excessive movement.

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