The inventor of the Internet pop-up ad wrote a long post this week decrying the state of the ad-supported web. In it, he said he was sorry about creating the pop-up and tells the story of how and why it came to be (a very interesting story by the way).
It’s been a long time since the days of the pop-up (circa 2001-2004) but many remember them. Those newer to the space may not realize that the pop-up ad was actually far less relevant to the world of digital media than its cousin, the pop-under.
The pop-up ad acted exactly as it is named. A new browser would “pop-up” and over the content that the user was viewing. It was very intrusive and therefore used mostly across the long tail of websites and as a tool for adware firms.
The pop-under was different. It would be launched under or actually behind the browser. The user would only see it when they closed the browser down.
Being fairly large in size (720x300 pixels), and not having to compete with anything else for the user’s attention, the pop-under was very effective, much more effective than pop-ups. It was not uncommon to see click-through rates from 2%-5%, sometimes even higher.
And because it was less intrusive to the user experience than the pop-up, it was embraced by almost every publisher at the time. Keep in mind that this was post dot-com bust and post 9/11. The digital advertising economy was quite depressed. Standard banner ads were, in many cases, being bought on clicks (not even on a CPM) so pop-unders were one of the most reliable revenue sources a publisher could adopt. Check out some of the names in this CNET article from 2004.
Advertisers like Netflix, Lower My Bills and Orbitz (example below) ran a lot of pop-unders because they worked so well.
A few firms (including Undertone) focused on pop-unders and it was a very competitive market for supply for a few years.
The IAB even created a task force around it. Pop-unders were a hot topic.
This all changed around 2004. An improved economy drove ad dollars back into digital media. Google launched AdSense which helped publishers drive better yield for standard banner ads. And finally toolbars by Google, Yahoo and ultimately Microsoft’s IE browser (this was when Microsoft had 90%+ market share in the browser market) implemented pop-up blockers. The market eventually moved on.
But for a time, it was one of the most important ad formats in digital media.