A few years ago, AdAge published an article about clicks1 that I found to be both hilarious and disturbing. It turns out that if you want to improve your click-through rate, just expose consumers to the least amount of information possible. In fact, the ad that produced the most clicks within their modest experiment was a blank ad. That’s right…an ad with nothing about the brand, what it does or how to find it – completely blank. That was the winner of the best click-through rate contest!
The disturbing part was that a VP of the Advertising Research Foundation didn’t understand why a blank ad would get more clicks – and, more important, why clicks are irrelevant in determining ad effectiveness. Instead, he lamented the absence of clicks and proceeded to infer that the job of online marketers and advertising is to acquire clicks – rather than let folks know that brands exists, what they do, and how to find them. He clearly outlined the click-mythology that has transformed marketers into technocrats when he stated the following:
“Clicks are counted as a surrogate for attention, and still used as our most important currency (i.e. cost-per-click). They are also the principal signal in a control system that governs a giant machine.”
Simply, clicks on ads do not generate awareness or sales – online or offline. This is proven by research from ComScore2, Neilsen3 and others. Most consumers understand that a “hard sell” landing page awaits them with each click on an ad. Most consumers don’t want a deeper sales pitch or, at least, don’t want it at the time they’re being exposed to an ad. Perhaps, this is why so few ads are clicked on via paid search (4%) and display advertising (less than .1%). Yet, online ads do help to establish brand awareness – as well as generate sales and leads. This is also proven by research and nearly everyone who looks at Impression-Assisted and View-Through conversion data in Google AdWords.
The problem for marketers who rely on click-focused metrics goes beyond the increasing scarcity of clicks. It points to something far more troubling for the companies and clients they represent. Namely, those who focus on clicks don’t understand how consumers are influenced by advertising or how they convert online. Knowing this affects the design of ads, targeting and how success is measured. Once this is known, low click-through rates become irrelevant or even desirable. Without this knowledge, reaching actual marketing objectives becomes nearly impossible. In fact, you’re likely to create strategies are counter to how consumers learn about brands and buy online.
The fact that those who do research on digital advertising don’t have a grasp on Brand Activity or attribution is bad news for brands and my profession. When brands are instructed to be seen as few times as possible (via high CTR) and to measure things with no relationship to branding or conversions (clicks) – the advertising and marketing industries are in BIG trouble. By not disqualifying non-buyers and providing basic information that facilitates a transaction, such an approach has nothing to do with marketing or advertising. Instead, it serves as a meaningless activity for technocrats to justify their existence. It’s absurd.
Those consumers targeted via clicks aren’t a desirable market for most brands anyway. According to ComScore, “16% of Internet users account for 80% of all clicks”. What’s more, “the demographics of clickers are skewed towards younger users aged 25 to 44 earning less than $40,000 per year.” Yet, we are told to focus on this market, build metric around clicks and lose our identity as marketers for clicks. We are told to ignore the 84% of consumers who can be influenced by messaging (knowing brands exist, what they do, how to find them) in favor of those who have neither the need nor the income to convert into customers. Is this not absurd in the context of what it means to be a marketer?
So why do blank ads get more clicks? Simply, consumers use ads to familiarize themselves with brands and get the basic information they need. In the context of display, they may be reading an article or blog or other information relevant to the ad being served on a page. They aren’t on the page to click on ads. They’re gathering information and facts – including information and facts from ads. The lack of information and facts available from an ad prompts these gatherers to click on the ad. Thus, when marketers stray from letting consumers know who they are, what they do and how to find them – the higher the click-through rate.
When consumers are ready to pursue a solution -- the information and facts they’ve gathered is used to make a decision. They use this information to search for brands, research brands on review sites, research competitors, obtain advice from others and eventually make a purchase. Clicking on ads isn’t part of their buying process – gathering and using information is. This is proven by the fact that the majority of sales and leads happen through brand search and direct entries (typing in URL for a site). For this reason, if ads don’t let consumers know who they are, what they do and how to find them – they will waste exposures, get fewer exposures and drive unqualified visitors to a site.
It is my hope that marketers will move beyond the irrational fixation on clicks – especially those who are viewed as thought leaders within our profession. The click-mythology has only served to devalue online advertising, slow the growth of brands and transform marketers into technocrats. It has prevented smart people from learning about online consumers and developing strategies that actually impact results.
1. How Blank Display Ads Managed to Tot Up Some Impressive Numbers
And No, Most People Didn't Click on Them by Mistake
2. How Online Advertising Works: Whither the Click
3. Beyond Clicks and Impressions: Examining the Relationship Between Online Advertising and Brand Building