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Interstitial ads shown to alienate, not engage

November 15, 2016 | By Peggy Anne Salz, Founder and Lead Analyst—Mobile Groove

More than 50 years later, the wisdom of Herbert Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian professor and philosopher who famously observed in 1964 that “the medium is the message,” continues to strike a chord, underlining the inextricable link between the mechanics of how companies deliver their message and the influence these messages have on customer behavior and brand perception.

It’s all about engaging in a way that adds value to the “conversation” — and the rules of engagement that held true for the delivery of more traditional content and communications go double for mobile. It’s a medium where evidence is mounting that advertising and marketing approaches that merely retrofit online display advertising to smaller screens are patently out of sync with the requirements of consumers in the “mobile moment.

Consider the findings of a recent report published by PageFair, which documented the meteoric rise in the use of adblocking technology on mobile devices. Studies like this document a clear disconnect between what content companies want to deliver and what consumers are willing to accept. However, most studies, including the PageFair research, draw from empirical data, not user surveys, to explain people’s growing fatigue with mobile advertising. Until now precious few have dared to delve into the real and root cause of brand affinity, or frustration.

This is where a new report by neuromarketing companies True Impact and Neurons Inc., and commissioned by MediaBrix, an in-app mobile video advertising platform for brands, breaks new ground, documenting the “how” and “why” behind consumers’ negative response to interstitial ads.

The Brand Receptivity Neuro Lab Study, which was designed to help marketers understand how consumers react to and engage with different ad formats, relies on technology to monitor people’s neuro and biometric responses before, during and after the delivery of a mobile ad. Respondents were wired up to neurometric and physical eye-tracking devices, and each consumer was asked to complete a post-exposure interview and survey.

The aim was to explore how different methods of delivering the same ad inside a mobile app (also known as an in-app ad) impact respondents’ receptivity to advertising. To test this hypothesis researchers measured the emotional and physiological impact (heartbeat, attention and the feeling of “wanting” that drives urges and decision marking) messages from two brands, MillerCoors’ Smith and Forge Hard Cider and a popular CPG brand, had on respondents during their sessions on a gaming app.

Among the findings:

  • Viewers were twice as likely to have a negative emotional response to a full-page interstitial ad than to an embedded, opt-in ad format. Pupil dilation, heart rate and other biometric data revealed that full page video interstitial ads aroused the brain’s “fight-or-flight” center, which explains why interstitial ad viewers also focused 22% of the time they did spend looking at the ad searching for the “X” button to close down the ad altogether. In contrast, respondents “actually watch the embedded, opt-in units,” with close to 90% of viewers watching the full 30-second video, compared to only 25% of viewers watching an interstitial ad.
  • Embedded, opt-in ad viewers don’t just watch the ad; they also spend three times as much time fixated on the brand creative and they’re 8 times “more cognitively engaged” with ad message.
  • Overall, embedded, opt-in ad viewers spend 9.5 times more time “understanding/considering the embedded value exchange offered by the ad” than they do considering the interstitial ad unit. This deep engagement with embedded, opt-in ad units resulted in 70% of those viewers remembering the product and 73% understanding the brand offer. For viewers who experienced interstitial ads the results were 40% and 49% respectively.

Significantly, the study found that embedded, opt-in ad viewers are also more motivated. Motivation, which is a key brain imaging metric refers to the feeling of “wanting” that ultimately drives desire and decisions. High motivation levels in the brain therefore imply purchase intent and action.

“Those who experienced the contextual ad unit [embedded, opt-in ad unit] had four times a feeling of motivation according to neurometric measures,” the study concludes. In total 25% of embedded, opt-in ad viewers said the ads made them want to keep using the app.

This is a far cry from the “fight-or-flight” reaction triggered by full-page interstitial ads — and should send alarm bells ringing in board rooms everywhere on the planet, according to Richard Kosinski, MediaBrix President & Global CRO. “The key message is that the interstitial, the most common ad format, is also the format that users find most annoying and disruptive,” he explains. “Publishers need to consider formats that do not create a negative experience for their readership.”

He urges the industry to “rethink ad delivery and ad format” and remember the core importance of the user experience they deliver, not just the content.

The explosive growth of mobile apps — and the increase in the amount of time consumers spend on them daily — turns up the pressure on publishers to rethink mobile advertising and how they monetize their content. “Eyeballs have clearly shifted to mobile and mobile apps and publishers have to focus their efforts on creating a good user experience for their audience,” Kosinski says. “Our research shows that just running interstitials on mobile and in apps isn’t the way to achieve this.”

This dovetails with the 2016 U.S. Mobile App report released by audience measurement company comScore. It estimates that mobile now represents “almost two out of three digital media minutes.” As a result, mobile apps are approaching 60% of total digital time spent by consumers by platform.

Kosinski, a 25-year veteran in the media business who has held a variety of senior roles at brands including The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo!, CNET, Quantcast and Westwood One, advises content companies to rethink mobile ad creatives, not abandon them. The positive response by respondents to embedded, opt-in ad formats suggests that consumers might whole-heartedly embrace monetization models that reward them for watching a video, for example. “The result is a better experience for the consumer, who gets to read the article behind the pay wall, and higher engagement and higher CPMs for the publisher that enables this value exchange,” he says.

Opt-in ad experiences put consumers in control, but it’s not enough for publishers to change their creative message. They should also embrace the formats and delivery mechanisms proven to provide a positive user experience. This milestone study doesn’t just provide the industry with valuable blueprint to improve ad receptivity, human attention and brand recall. It bravely delves into the emotional and physiological traits and triggers publishers must understand to ensure their message (and marketing) is truly aligned with the mobile medium.


Peggy Anne Salz is the Content Marketing Strategist and Chief Analyst of Mobile Groove, a top 50 influential technology site providing custom research to the global mobile industry and consulting to tech startups. She is a frequent contributor to Forbes on the topic of mobile marketing, engagement and apps. Her work also regularly appears in a range of publications from Venture Beat to Harvard Business Review. Peggy is a top 30 Mobile Marketing influencer and a nine-time author based in Europe. Follow her @peggyanne.

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