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Playing whack-an-ad at The Post

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Readers hate online advertisements. I do, too. We know they pay the freight, but they are intrusive, incessant and irritating. Encountering online ads is like being at a carnival and playing whack-a-mole.

Look out! On your right, your cursor just touched a rollover ad, which suddenly fills your screen. Quick, move the cursor away. Oh no, you accidentally clicked on a banner ad, and you’re navigating away from the news.

And you can’t scroll down the news page until the ads load. While they’re loading, you’re waiting, waiting, waiting — all that blinking — and waiting some more. Is the page still loading?

Try to pull up a photo gallery or a video, and you have to sit through a 15- or 30-second video ad about a new Gulfstream executive jet or one for the YouTube Town Hall. Criminy!

Will Raymond, a friendly, reasonable fellow from Boston, called me on July 5, audibly frustrated. “I’m very, very disappointed in your organization’s use of the tiny belly ad next to the Dalai Lama photos,” he said. The belly ad degrades the images shot by the photographers and distracts from a well-produced slide show about a dignified religious leader, Raymond noted.

“You seem to be catering to a very lowbrow audience,” he said. “I’m afraid you’re losing out to the New York Times. I will simply stop going to your Web site if this persists.”

And this was two days before a story in The Post by Paul Farhi, revealing that the Federal Trade Commission is investigating the companies behind the “tiny belly” ads over allegations of fraudulent marketing.

Other ad complaints run the gamut. There are too many ads. Some come with photos that are too sexy or revealing. And on some days, readers complain that they can’t read the home page because an ad surrounds its border, like a cheap picture frame, and it shrinks the typeface and photos.

A reader named Barry Christianson e-mailed me on June 27: “Your new [frame] background with that Siemens ad is just gawd-awful, and the final straw in my loyalty. Whatever marketing or layout nimrod who thought this was a good idea just lost another viewer. It appears that there are no U.S. newspapers that play their online viewership for more revenue than The Post.”

Kris Coratti, spokeswoman for The Post, said the Web site’s practices are in line with its competitors. “Our goal is to strike a balance between editorial and advertising needs,” she said. “We give advertisers on our Web site wide latitude to deliver their messages to our audience, and we take a number of steps to try to make sure that those messages do not come at the expense of our editorial content or our users’ experience.”

For instance, Coratti continued, “we limit the frequency of full-screen or almost full-screen ads that any one user can get in a day. The sizes and shapes of nearly all of the advertisements on our Web site are the industry standard, and we believe that the number of ads we serve on any particular page is consistent with similar news sites.”

But most readers say that when they compare Web sites, the ads are most annoying at The Post. The top home page ad at The Post, for example, is bigger than similar ads at the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal — and yes, the readers do know they’ll have to pay something for frequent use of the Times and Journal sites.

To The Post’s credit, the longer you stay on its site, the fewer the full-screen ads that pop up. Many of the full-screen ads offer an ‘x’ button that you can click on to close them. And the flip side to so many ads is that it means The Post’s digital sales team is doing a better job of selling out its ad spaces than competitors are. That really helps the company’s bottom line.

Post readers are sophisticated; they understand that they’re reading the site for free and that the ads help pay the bills. Raymond, for example, said he would gladly pay $30 a year, or maybe more, to get an ad-free version of the Web site. Not a bad idea.

Indeed, The Post is one of three major investors in a new Web site, Ongo, which for $6.99 a month will deliver you news culled from major news organizations, customized for your preferences and without ads. The New York Times and Gannett are the other major investors.

Readers first want to know that online ads are from reputable companies not trying to scam people. The belly fat ad is intrusive and inexcusable. Second, they care about the tastefulness of ads — if it’s tacky, it detracts from the enjoyment and the seriousness of the news. And third, when striking that balance between editorial and advertising needs, remember the third stakeholder — the readers, for whom the Web site’s ease of use is a factor in their loyalty to The Post.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.
com
. For updates, read the omblog at voices.washingtonpost. com/ombudsman-blog/.

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