When the Product Becomes an Ad

When the iPhone first came out in 2007 and the gradual shift from feature phones to smart phones started, one of the common themes during this shift was that websites started to make mobile-friendly versions of their product. At the beginning, viewing web sites on a full-screen device (laptop or desktop) was much better than on your phone. On the phone, the text was tiny and it was hard to see any rich media. But as sites became more and more mobile friendly, it was delightfully surprising to see that some sites were better viewed on a phone than on a full-screen device.

One of the key reasons that sites were more delightful on the phone than on a laptop or desktop was that there were fewer (if any) ads on the mobile experience. One hypothesis as to why this came to be is because there is very limited real estate on a mobile screen as compared to a laptop or desktop screen. But as must be the case (revenue must be made), ads started to be integrated into the respective mobile web experiences.

Recently I noticed something on one of my favorite sites, espn.com, that caught my attention. When I visited the site on my iPhone, I saw that nearly the entire viewable area was covered by an ad:

Espn 1

Here, as the user, I had to touch the “X” in the top right corner in order to bypass this ad and actually view the site. This ad served as a gatekeeper standing between me and consuming the site’s content.

Espn 2

While it is understandable that ads must be integrated into a site’s design, especially a site that is content based and not selling anything, it’s another thing when each visit requires the user to get through an interstitial ad. It wouldn’t be a huge leap to compare this functionality to videos on YouTube that require the user to view an ad before being able to view the original video.

Jumping out of the digital space and into the space of physical products, I saw something that resembled this type of ad design. I noticed a Heinz ketchup bottle with an interesting label. Instead of just seeing the traditional Heinz name and product information, the ketchup bottle has a reference to the Trivial Pursuit game on the front label and a full explanation of the partnership on the back label.

Heinz 1

Heinz 2

One might argue that this partnership with Trivial Pursuit is fun and interesting and some users would get a kick out of this game being made accessible by the ketchup bottle. But the simpler explanation is that this is, simply put, an ad. And for me this was interesting because, similar to the ESPN example above, the majority of the product label is taken up by an ad.

So what to make of these ads in both the digital and physical space that seem to be getting larger, longer, and more pervasive? On the one hand, you can make the argument that they bring new sources of revenue to their respective companies. In fact, I’m fairly certain that in the ESPN case, they probably ran an A/B test that showed no decrease in usage when the full screen ad was introduced. And in the Heinz case, they probably did analysis that showed the same amount of ketchup would be consumed.

That being said, I still think there is a down side risk to this type of approach, and there is a potential to not be able to forecast or see that risk in the short term. The risk here, is a long term one, and is related to users’ perception of the quality of the product. In both cases, the huge prominence of ads may cheapen the product quality for the end user and open up the potential for users to leave the product for a competing product that has a more elegant and clean user experience. In the case of ESPN, an end user may get annoyed to constantly touch the “X” to close the ad and start to visit a competing site such as si.com. In the case of Heinz, users may be turned off by seeing logos for other products on the Heinz label and reach for a competing product.


Facebook iOS Ads May Span Entire Screen

Much has been said about how important it is for Facebook to successfully monetize in the mobile space. Advertising in an app is a double-edged sword that yields seemingly free money on the one side but may lead to long-term disengagement from users. At the end of the day, deciding on the amount of advertising in an app requires a very delicate balance to be maintained.

Today, I saw something in the Facebook iOS app that was definitely not balanced:


In my opinion, this experience as bad for the end user for two reasons:

  1. The entire screen of the user’s view is taken up by ads
  2. This was the first thing that was shown upon entry into the app

In an ideal user experience, there would be some smarter logic that would spread out ads across the different news feed stories so that the user is never bombarded with so many ads at once that they don’t get anything resembling what they were looking for in the first place.

A Clever Advertising Technique From Facebook

Saw something that grabbed my attention on my Facebook News Feed. What looked to be a typical like or comment by a friend of mine, actually happened to be an advertisement. Take a look at the following:


On first glance, I thought that this was a post from Budweiser’s page that my friend had liked or commented on. However, upon further review and after looking more closely, I realized that my friend had no direct involvement with this specific post, but had rather only liked the Budweiser Facebook page.

What Facebook is doing, in effect, is making this advertisement seem contextually relevant in my News Feed — and less “Spam”y by tying my friend’s like with the ad. Do a thought experiment and ask yourself what your reaction would be if someone proposed dropping huge banner ads in the middle of a user’s News Feed. Completely preposterous and not feasible, right?!? Well, with this technique, maybe not as outrageous as one might think…

YouTube: Making Ads More Tolerable For Users

One way to monetize video content is to show an ad at the beginning of the video. When this was first done years ago on the internet, users would simply fast forward the video to skip over the ad and to wind up at the start of the content. Eventually videos were made in such a way where viewers could not skip over the ad and were required to watch the ad before the actual content could begin.

For many users, this became annoying. Users developed different ways to cope with these ads, i.e. sometimes the user would just close the ad and declare it wasn’t worth the price to pay to watch the video, or mute the volume and browse the internet on another page and come back when the ad is over (you had to have had good timing with this one or else the content may have started without you), or the user would just tough it out, get through the ad and then see the video.

No doubt the companies who placed these ads knew that they were annoying and not desired by many users. As a way to deal with this issue, YouTube has designed their ad interaction with some of their videos in a very clever way.

Here’s the beginning of a video on YouTube. At the outset, the user has an option to select one ad from three choices or watch the full video with one commercial break. This is amazing. Giving the user a real-time input into what ad they would have to watch in addition to getting to decide when to watch it makes the experience completely different.


Here’s another approach. An ad starts of playing right away, and in the bottom right corner the user sees real-time messaging informing the user that they can skip the ad in a certain number of seconds. This is great for two reasons. One, it gives the user incentive to stick around knowing they don’t have to watch the full ad. Two, during the first five seconds, the ad may hook the user and the user may just stick around for the entire ad after all. In this case, YouTube can pick up extra revenue from the ad owner.

One final note: the video shows the amount of time left for the ad to conclude in the bottom left corner. This is another piece of information that is very useful to the user and sets expectations properly.