They come in cascades. They drum, they hover, they annoy. And when you kill one, chances are another will appear. Skeeters? No, pop-up advertisements on the Internet. Advertisers love them, because they can command viewers' attention. But many Web surfers ache to swat them to kingdom come.
Now the Internet industry is providing customers with the tech tools to do just that. AOL (TWX ), EarthLink, (ELNK ) and Microsoft's (MSFT ) MSN are promoting powerful pop-up blockers in their latest Net offerings. Search king Google offers a free one, too. Just like TV viewers who blitz past commercials with (TIVO )personal digital recorders from TiVo Inc. (TIVO ), Web trawlers are gaining the power to banish intrusive ads -- and rattle a still-vulnerable online advertising industry. Further, Microsoft Corp. is mulling bundling a pop-up blocker in its next upgrade of Windows XP, which debuts in a year. That could decimate the medium.
For now, lost sales will hardly matter. Pop-ups account for only 5% of the estimated $8.3 billion in Internet ad revenue this year. What is clear, though, is that users are asserting their clout. And as their power grows, advertisers increasingly will be pushed to come up with ads that Netizens accept -- and even welcome.
The move to block pop-ups puts the titans of the Internet in an awkward spot. To satisfy its customers, Microsoft's MSN must offer pop-up blockers -- even if it means snuffing out the very ads the company's Web sites sell. Others benefit. Google, for example, blocks pop-ups -- and cashes in, as more advertisers instead place ads next to search results.
Still, some advertisers cling to pop-ups. Despite aggravations, ad execs say that 2% of them entice Web-surfers to click -- four times the rate of traditional banner ads. Consequently, companies from J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. (JPM ) to British Airways PLC (BAB ) are giving pop-ups a revamp. Many favor pop-unders. These are ads that appear only when the browser is closed. Another trend is to go slow. The New York Times Online (NYT ), for example, hits each reader only once every 24 hours with pop-ups that jump in front of the text, says Jason Krebs, vice-president for sales at NYTimes.com.
Orbitz Inc., the e-travel site, is breathing life into pop-ups by making them fun. Working with the Chicago ad firm Otherwise Inc., the company has devised a series of pop-ups featuring games and puzzles. It started last year with a chicken. When viewers pulled off its feathers, it laid an egg -- which led to the Orbitz site. Since then the company has come up with more than 20 games. On Halloween, one went to 20 million Web surfers, enticing a staggering 13% of them to click to the Orbitz site, says Mark Rattin, creative director at Otherwise.
Competitors are hurrying to follow Orbitz' lead. Games, sweepstakes, cheap trips. Internet marketers have to dangle all sorts of treats as they pitch to a public with one finger on the zap button.
By Stephen Baker in New York