M3tr1c Conv3r51on: The decline of the click-through has publishers looking to make an impression

If the click-through in display advertising were human, it would be someone to pity -- so few people have anything nice to say about it. Here are just a few of the derogatory things people had to say when asked for this story:

"The click-through gets a bit more attention than it deserves."

Eugene Becker
senior vice president, director of measurement and analytics,
MRM Worldwide
"In my world right now, I don't even want to talk about the click."
David Honig
founder, Media6Degrees
"The click-through is a measurement of efficiency. It's not a measurement of profitability, or achievement of a goal."
Max Kalehoff
vice president/marketing, Clickable
"A click-through is nothing more than a hint these days ... a hint that someone may be interested."
Mike Goodnough
managing partner/analytics, Emerge Partners
And Joe Laszlo, director of research at the Interactive Advertising Bureau says, "The IAB fully believes that the click is an overused metric."
In fact, the status of the display ad click is so low that some smarter advertisers are using it to get themselves better deals. Several people interviewed for this story said that with click-through rates so low - comScore recently put them at 0.1 percent -- they buy their advertising on a cost-per-click basis, knowing that they'll get what they really want -- impressions -- for free.
While there are those that still believe in display ad clicks - and its utility as a metric in paid search is undisputed - clearly, the click-through has spiraled downward as a metric compared to its halcyon days in the late 1990s, when it was held up as the standard for online advertising effectiveness. "Everyone was talking so much about click-throughs because we were all so excited about the fact this was such a measurable medium," recalls Pam Horan, president of the Online Publishers Association.
Not Impressed
Now, the hunt is on for better ways to measure online display, a mission that has gotten only more serious as the recession, the decline in click-through rates, and the skyrocketing amount of inventory - much of it sold out on the long-tail by ad networks - has put pressure on pricing.

But if there is consensus about the limited value of the display ad click-through, that like-mindedness breaks down when it comes to developing a new metric that will give advertisers a better idea of how their ads are performing. Some parts of the online ad industry favor data that unearths the branding impact of display advertising, others are pushing bigger display ads formats; still others are trying to help advertisers connect how branding ads further up the purchase funnel impact the final click that converts into a sale; and then there are those who advocate advertisers use metrics such as downloads and registrations to better gauge consumer engagement.

Whatever the solution, for many in the online advertising community, getting beyond the click-through has gone from being important, to an all-out emergency. "We're seeing a lot of requests from publishers and marketers and agencies to measure advertising beyond the click," says Gian Fulgoni, executive chairman of comScore.

ComScore is one of several major companies that have recently launched products squarely focused on creating new metrics to make display advertising more meaningful. In November, it launched the comScore Brand Metrix norms database, which uses data across ten vertical categories to help advertisers measure metrics such as brand awareness and purchase intent, and, like the click-through, behavior. Its data showed a 27 percent increase in online sales and a 17 percent increase in offline sales among Internet users exposed to ads for a brand versus those in a control group. ComScore also measures advertiser site visitation and branded trademark search on people who were exposed to online display ads. ComScore wants to prove that display advertising influences consumers, even if they don't respond right away by clicking on an ad.

That gets at the topic of who in the online food chain should get credit for conversion, or attribution measurement. This runs on the theory that Google, and other companies in paid search, get too much credit for the value of their click-throughs. Tracking what happens before the last click, and measuring what simple exposure contributes toward completing a sale, is at the heart of this attempt at building better metrics. "There is a reason people are searching," explains Honig. "You don't wake up in the morning and say, 'I'm going to search for this.'?"

This metric, sometimes described as a view-through, is being espoused not just by comScore but by companies such as Microsoft. The company's Atlas Institute undertook a study last year which tracked 17 million conversions (including sales, registrations and leads), going 90 days back from the conversion event itself. It showed that over half of the ad exposure for those who converted occurred between a week and 60 days before the final click; less than a third of exposures happened in the two days prior to the final click. Such data makes a compelling case for the value of consumers merely seeing an ad. If this argument sounds old, it is - at least in Internet time. While DoubleClick has looked at the issue recently, a Google search conducted for this story dug up a DoubleClick case study on the subject dating back to 2004 - and that's almost certainly not the first one published.

Supersize 'Em
While studies such as Microsoft's get highly technical about how display advertising can be effective without clicks, in other parts of the online universe the answer is a little more, well, direct: Make the ads bigger.

In early March, the Online Publishers Association announced it had created three new display units - one of them even dubbed the XXL - to meet a number of objectives, including building "a metric that emphasizes the impact creative advertising can have on Web viewers while preserving the Internet's well-established ability to engender response." In other words, you can have an ad impression and get a click-through, too!

By July, many OPA members, including CNN, Meredith Interactive and The New York Times will accept the units, which will, according to Horan, allow "marketers to deliver that brand experience right on the [publishers'] pages." The group also wants the new units to usher in an era of fewer, more noticeable, ads that have more impact with consumers.

Importantly, the new units will only be sold by the publishers themselves, which may stem the tide of ad dollars flowing to ad networks which sell it at low cost.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau, which, like the OPA, represents many of online's so-called premium publishers, is (sort of) following suit. In late April, it launched the Re-imagining Interactive Advertising Task Force, which, for the first time, will involve agency creative directors at shops ranging from digital specialists The Barbarian Group to BBDO in discussions of how to make interactive advertising more engaging. The task force is an outgrowth of IAB CEO Randall Rothenberg's concerns about the not-very-memorable state of online advertising. In a blog post in February, he urged readers to "Prove to your customers that causing the heart to beat quick is at least as important as making the mouse click."

IAB research chief Laszlo says the effort isn't directly aimed at getting beyond the click-through, but it's impossible to completely disassociate the effect that better creativity has on an ad's impact. "Encouraging fresh thinking around online creative is a necessary step (though not by itself a sufficient one) toward broadening the use of interactive advertising to convey brand messages," he says. "And branding success should be measured by means other than the click."

If the publisher focus is to get maximum engagement from consumers within the confines of their own sites and servers, those who represent advertisers have other priorities. "We are pushing our advertisers to look at KPIS [key performance indicators] and returns that a publisher would likely not get access to," says xPlusOne's Ted Shergalis. (xPlusOne helps advertisers and agencies maximize ROI.)

MRM's Becker says the metrics that matter are things like page views, downloads, video initiations and completions, registrations, and sharing of content, often activities that occur long after the click-through, if a click-through was what got the visitor to the client's site in the first place. He urges "don't buy [publishing] brands. Buy the outcomes." In that context, it doesn't really matter what sites, premium or not, that an ad appears on, as long as the consumer, once at the advertiser's site, is engaging with the content there. In fact, it doesn't even matter what medium ads appear on, as long as they result in achieving the goals the advertiser wants.

Emerge's Goodnough, like Becker, urges clients to look at engagement metrics -where exactly the consumer engages is beside the point. Companies like Eloqua, he says, tally points for different types of engagement such as downloading or taking a quiz, making the click-through seem, if not irrelevant, old-fashioned. "In the old days, all that would be noticed is the click-through," he says.

If advertisers are becoming more sophisticated about engagement metrics that have nothing to do with the click-through, the problem for publishers is that it gives them less data to sell against. If an advertiser is getting lots of downloads on its site, but the activity is happening many clicks away from the publisher's site, the correlation between the two becomes weaker. While some people representing advertisers see little activity on the publishing side to encourage advertising engagement on the publishers' servers, there are more signs this is starting to happen. In fact, one of the OPA's goals with its new ad units is to build such elements as video streaming and lead capture into the ad unit itself, not only combating the problem, as Horan puts it, of "taking [consumers] somewhere else all the time" but also of giving publishers more engagement data they can potentially have access to, which, in turn, should help them convince advertisers of the value of their inventory.

If it seems, after all this discussion, that the click-through is yet to find a good replacement, you're right. But it looks unlikely there will ever be any one substitution. Even as the click-through in display advertising has lost much of its reputation, advertisers, agencies and publishers have all gotten smarter about defining objectives for online advertising, and, obviously, there are many different kinds of objectives. "Any one of these different metrics [will] start to take their place in the field," notes the IAB's Laszlo.

And no one thinks the click-through in display advertising will entirely go away (indeed the IAB just released its click measurement guidelines in May). Instead, it just looks like a metric that's acquiring a lot of new, more popular, friends.

1 comment about "M3tr1c Conv3r51on: The decline of the click-through has publishers looking to make an impression".
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  1. Daniel Redman from Evisibility, June 17, 2009 at 2:01 p.m.

    So odd that it made my abdomen tingle when I read this article; I wrote a very closely related article on June 3rd. It's as if I am in your brain, or vice-versa, Catharine P. Taylor. Well done, and thank you for giving this display conversation more legs!

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