An Advertising Week session on Wednesday morning at the Times Center gave a glimpse at a couple of studies commissioned by AOL about consumers' engagement with online content, including online advertising. Here's a detailed look at one of the studies, conducted by Data & Management Counsel Inc. (The full report, "The Consumer and Content: Benchmark Study," can be accessed here.)

The research finds that consumers understand and mostly accept the tradeoff of having access to online content in return for being exposed to advertising. As the report states the matter in its analysis of the data, "Consumers believe that most of the content they experience online is supported by advertising. With the exception of ads that are invasive, consumers have largely come to accept advertising as part of online life."

Nor is that acceptance merely grudging if consumers find an ad pertinent to their own needs: "When these ads are relevant (highly targeted and engaging), they become valued to consumers." (Polling for the study was conducted online last month among 18- to 69-year-olds who have broadband Internet access at home and spend more than an hour a week on the Internet for non-work reasons. The research also included focus groups.)

More specifically, what works and what doesn't? Sixty-seven percent of respondents rated as very or somewhat acceptable "ads targeted to your likes." Nearly as many (64 percent) said the same about "ads with photos (like in a magazine)" or "sponsored ads in search results" (61 percent). Also deemed very/somewhat acceptable by a majority of respondents were "banner ads" (58 percent) and "ads with functionality—share on Facebook, e-mail to a friend" (53 percent). At the opposite end of the scale were "takeover ads" (very/somewhat acceptable to 14 percent of respondents), "pop-up ads" (15 percent) and "in-video ads" (33 percent). Moreover, adds the report, "Consumers want 'fewer ads' on a page so they are less intrusive (and page is less cluttered)."

On the related subject of "sponsored content," the research finds consumers "ambivalent about its impact, effectiveness and appeal." The content actually benefits from association with a known brand. The report mentions a finding in focus groups that people feel "content sponsored by a major brand is likely to be of high quality given the sponsoring brand's willingness to be associated with it." But there's also a wariness toward such material, notes the report—a suspicion on the part of consumers that "it might simply be an ad dressed in content, with the primary objective of trying to sell them something." On the other hand, consumers also believe "sponsored content should be directly relevant to the brand with which it is associated."

The research also looked more broadly at how adults spend their online time. Using a "constant sum exercise," it asked respondents to allocate 100 points among various activities to reflect their own online activity. On average, slightly more than half is devoted to one form or another of what the report referred to as "content activity": 26 points go to "seeking/getting online information (news, sports, finance, politics, etc.)," 16 to "entertainment (video, games and music)" and 11 to "shopping." Slightly less than half goes to what the report terms "communication activity," with this split between "e-mail" (32) and "social networking" (15). As you'd expect, the skew in "communication activity" is different for the study's 18- to 34-year-olds, who assigned an average of 23 points to social networking and 25 to e-mailing. By contrast, those in the 55-69 bracket spent 41 on e-mailing and a mere 9 on social networking.

Another section of the study examined consumers' online-shopping behavior. A question in the survey asked respondents to identify the methods they "typically use" when shopping online. Allocating 100 points among five choices, respondents gave an average of 49 to "going directly to a shopping site." The rest of the points were split among use of search engines (25), e-mail alerts (12), use of a portal/homepage (9) and links from friends (6).

Getting another perspective on respondents' online shopping, the research also employed "maximum difference decision judgment analysis" to identify the relative importance of different kinds and attributes of online information/content. Those identified as inhabiting the "first tier" in their importance to respondents when shopping online are "credible and trusted source" and "quality." In the second tier are "known, established brand," "authentic," "relevant" and "recent." Relegated to the third tier are "ease of navigation," "convenient" and "interesting." The fourth tier consists of "familiar/habitual," "isn't trying to sell me anything," "expert recommended," "original," "visually appealing," "friend recommended" and "among first search results."

Although friends' recommendations ranked quite low in this hierarchy, 29 percent of respondents said "online reviews from consumers I know" are "very influential" when they're looking for more information prior to making a purchase. Twenty-six percent gave a "very influential" rating to "online reviews from experts" and 22 percent to "online reviews from consumers I don't know." The survey's 18- to 34-year-olds were much more likely than their elders to say they're influenced by each of these online-review categories. Among the 18-34s, 39 percent said online reviews from people they know are very influential when they're gathering information before making a purchase. Thirty-four percent said the same about experts' online reviews and 34 percent about online reviews from consumers they don't know.

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