The New York Times has inspired me to coin a new motto:

What Would You Do Offline?

Not though an editorial, a news story, or a blog post, rather they inspired this with their homepage ad usage.

While it’s not present today,Mac vs PC take over the Times homepage earlier this week, and at various times past, their homepage was adorned with a gigantic "Mac vs PC" ad that used both a banner and a skyscraper in tandem. While various people have opined on the ad content, including a much-dugg story on Gizmodo indicating that those weren’t really reviews to several posts praising the creativity of the ads to a post indicating that the ads tend to crash some browsers, I haven’t seen any commentary on with regard to the Times and other publications that ran the ad.

In short, I was amazed that the Times was willing to give up so significant a percentage of their above the fold homepage for this ad – would they really do the same with their offline edition?

I explore this phenomenon, and how it applies to NPOs, below the fold.

It’s a little strange to argue in favor of applying offline standards to online media. After all, for years, we’ve been saying that the internet is different and shouldn’t be treated like other media. That there are different standards, it’s a different user experience, and that not everything offline has an online analogue.

I still believe those things.

But the standard that I think should be applied here is to ask "What would you do offline?" before taking an action that’s going to reduce the quality of user experience to increase profits. Sure, almost anything that’s done to bring in revenue is going to be a suboptimal experience from a user point of view. That’s part of what we do when we build a site – direct people to where clients need them to go (contribute, take action, sign up for email) on the way to where they want to go (news, games, and videos).

But this only comes after a calculation of cost vs benefit. We don’t randomly redirect people to donation pages, and we’re ethical with their email address.

As I’ve argued before, an ad-supported internet is based on a relatively simple social contract:

We’ll provide you content for free. In exchange, you’ll look at these ads. We won’t make the ads too obnoxious. You’ll click on ads for products and services that interest you and ignore the rest.

Now, recently that contract has been altered by the existence of ad blockers, which say that if the content servers violate their part of the contract, the users will, at their sole discretion, browse your content without you getting anything for it.

I believe that this ad violates that contract. It’s gigantic, it animates without user input, and it’s generally distracting. It’s the sort of thing that makes me turn on ad-block, but your mileage may vary. That’s my perspective as an internet user.

What outraged me from the Screenshot courtesy http://www.pixelshot.com/2007/12/14/im-a-mac-ad-interesting-usage-on-nyt/ perspective of an online marketer is that the Times would dedicate that much homepage space, above the fold, to an ad. They’d never do that with their print edition, so why is it okay from an editorial perspective to do so on the online edition?

Too often, the website is a secondary consideration. I’ve addressed this in my critique of branding documents, and will undoubtedly continue to address it. As much time and money as you’re spending on literature that will be seen by a few thousand or merchandise that will be seen by a few hundred should be spent, proportionately, on your online presence. In the case of the Times, they still have a significant offline base. But their online readership is growing, and will surpass offline readers soon if it hasn’t already. So if they would never drop a giant ad in their print homepage, why do so online?

Website owners, both commercial and non-profit, should consider their website to be the first, and in many  cases most important, point of engagement for users, which means balancing what you want and what users want. Users who find a pleasant experience are likely to come back, so if you don’t snare them the first time, you’ll get them again later. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t include prominent calls to action, just that you need to balance them with the information your users want.

The bottom line is that when you’re considering something that will be detrimental to the user experience but good for you, think about it from a user perspective. Then ask yourself: "What would you do offline?"

I’ll make some calls tomorrow to get the wristbands printed.

One Response to “WWYDO?”

  1. John Brian Says:

    I should also note that I find PC to be the sympathetic figure in these ads. While Apple guy loves to mock his spreadsheets, PC is a dedicated guy who’s more interested in getting work done than looking cool.

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