Ad Crack: Gotta Get Your Fix Of CTR!

Have you ever been in this situation: You spend hours, days and weeks developing your client's online strategy, which is about building the brand through awareness and impact, but when that first performance report is delivered and the initial click-through rate is low, the strategy magically transforms immediately from a long-term brand play to a short term "improve the click rate" campaign?

If so, you've been a victim of the CTR Ad Crack Addict!

We all know that the addict is a difficult person to deal with. We also know that "crack is whack" (for those of you who remember, that's what they said in the '80s). Ad crack is whack, too! It happens when we plan a strategy and delineate metrics with which to judge the success of a campaign, but that first report shows poor CTR -- and the last 15 years' worth of online advertising history and experience takes over, causing people to start freakin' out.

I'm not criticizing, merely making an observation on human nature. Humans are creatures of habit -- and we need to break the habit of relying on immediate click-through as a measure of gauging success. We need to get ourselves weaned off the ad crack of CTR, but we also need to recognize that this is not a cold-turkey, overnight addiction that we can break. It takes time, it takes attention and it takes willpower, along with a strong rationale and a basis in strategic thinking.



When I moderated a panel at the recent OMMA Metrics in San Francisco, the wrap-up was summed up in one sentence (and I quote the panelists on this one): "Click-through rates are not dead yet, but they certainly do smell funny." Most serious digital advertisers understand that CTR is not the primary metric anymore, but the problem is, there's no immediate industry metric to put in its place. There are a host of metrics that advertisers are using whose focus is dependent on what they're trying to achieve with a campaign. The term of the day may be "engagement," but the definition of the term is a case-by-case occurrence. You need to define it for yourself; no one can do it for you.

Fighting the addiction to CTR can help you best serve your client's business. Call it an intervention if you will, to continue my "addiction" theme. To be successful in this business and provide a strong service for your clients, you need to provide a strategic rationale for what the primary metrics will be and maintain focus in the face of the ad crack addict. As soon as the first report shows up, you need to battle the instinctual reaction to focus on CTR. You can do this through one of two ways: either you deal with it head-on, or you remove CTR altogether. (Avoidance may not typically be a good strategy, but in some cases you need to remove yourself from a situation in order to fight an addiction).

I know a number of agencies that won't even show CTRs to their clients if they are focused on branding and impact. They'll show impressions and cost efficiency, time spent and interactions on the site or in the ad units, but they won't show CTR. In other cases, I know agencies and marketers that will show the CTR but place it in the back of the report, not highlighting it upfront or in the summary reports. In most other cases, CTR is prominently displayed, but the client service team maintains a maniacal focus on awareness, consideration and intent-oriented metrics and won't even talk CTR with their clients. All of these are strategies that can work at weaning the client off the ad crack.

The hardest thing in client service is to push back on the client. No one likes to be told that they're wrong, and no one likes to be told "no," but it's especially hard to put your client in that position. Sometimes it backfires and they get upset, but to provide a valuable service you have to be willing to stand up and fight for your ideas.

When the client asks you to start optimizing the campaign in week one and improve the CTR, it can be difficult to push back and refuse; however if you maintain that focus on the strategy and execution of the strategy that was agreed to upfront, then you're doing the service that your clients are paying you for. If you buckle and lapse back into a revised strategy, then you're just enabling the ad crack to take hold.

What techniques have you used to service your clients and maintain focus on your initial strategy? I'm sure our readers would like to know, so please share with us on the Spin Board!

13 comments about "Ad Crack: Gotta Get Your Fix Of CTR!".
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  1. Joelle Kaufman from BloomReach, August 19, 2009 at 12:58 p.m.

    It is crucial that agencies and publishers and networks collaborate to deliver the result desired by the client. We're not adversaries - no one wins if the client isn't satisfied. The entails managing the client's expectations, measuring the right metrics and having the confidence to stand firm against short term pressures.

    Great post Cory!

  2. Norm Page from Grapeshot, August 19, 2009 at 1:03 p.m.

    Ugh, can you imagine we're still having this conversation? Where's Michael Tchong with the "Is the Banner Dead?" rant when you need him? ... I'm wondering, why is it that we don't present CTR (click-through) + VTR (view-through) as a more holistic metric of response rate? I'm not saying it gets us out of this conversation, but I think for those looking for the crack, it at least shows a more accurate picture of total conversions resulting from ones online marketing. Wasn't it a DCLK report from like 2004 that showed that clicks only accounted for like 40% of conversions (across all "conversions" - sales, registrations, downloads, etc.)?? Shoot, Avenue A was buying media based on VTR success back in 1999. Just a quick $0.02.

  3. Stephen Shearin from ionBurst Media, August 19, 2009 at 1:04 p.m.

    As a remedy for CTR addiction, I would recommend putting an eye on actual ROI (there's got to be a tag line in there) and trusting the people who ultimately execute. It's what they (we) do for a living, and given some rope, we work to make secure lines, not nooses.
    Seriously, CTRs are a great means of doing a post campaign analysis, but a really poor means of planning or executing.
    As always Cory, you're right on point.

  4. Robert Jones from Lotame Solutions, Inc., August 19, 2009 at 1:10 p.m.

    it may be worthwhile to approach lackluster click-through rates as a PR problem in these cases, where the key way of dealing with them is to get out in front of them, and present them to the client in such a way that you get to frame the story and assuage fears.

    Instead of waiting for the client to see low ctr and get to the "freak out" stage, present the results to them yourself, along with more detailed messaging about their key goals, how those are being met, and they key findings and highlights up to that point. In doing so, you can re-frame the conversation and preemptively steer it back to a healthier, less panic-stricken place.

  5. Brian Ferrario from Rocket Fuel Inc., August 19, 2009 at 1:26 p.m.

    People -- put down the CTR pipe. Great article (let's hope advertisers read and understand it). CTR is probably one of many legacy metrics and ways of looking at online campaigns that tend to skew or filter the real "total" impact on an advertisers brand -- we need to ditch the click and/or educate people to take it with a grain of salt. There are so many other insights and metrics that can measure brand awareness, equity, affinity, and yes even action -- lots of other stuff that will help move the needle on an advertiser's brand.

  6. Warren Lee from WHL Consulting, August 19, 2009 at 2:30 p.m.

    As usual Cory, right on. Using CTR, in my opinion is an ode to DoubleClick and has confused the online ad market for over a decade. Now, with measurement strategies and products that are able to measure brand lift from online display, maybe we can do away with it, in most cases. I think that CTR is still going to be relevant for the DM/R community for some time.

  7. Andy Atherton from, August 19, 2009 at 5:04 p.m.

    Amen, Cory!

    Funny that you mention the OMMA Metrics conference. I was on a different panel later that day which focused on Brand measurement and the moderator (Dan Beltramo from Vizu) asked each of the panelists to answer a few questions to get the conversation started. One of the questions was, “What is the most misused metric for Brand Campaigns?”. All 4 panelists including yours truly answered, “CTR.”, to which Dan readily agreed. The fact is CTR isn’t correlated with attitudinal measures that Vizu focuses on. Nor is it correlated with ROI as measured by offline sales impact vs. online campaign spend (example here:

    Crack indeed.

  8. Robert Leathern from, Inc., August 19, 2009 at 5:17 p.m.

    An idea: Don't show the client the clicks number at all. Show them the number you actually want them to focus on and leave out other stuff, provide it only if they request. The problem is that whatever the initial number is that is presented, everything subsequent will be framed in that light (basic behavioral economics from Kahneman and Tversky). Something called "anchoring", it is a common bias in human decisionmaking. Interesting article here related to house prices:

    Good post. Setting expectations is one of the jobs any media buyer/optimizer has to work at regardless of how good their technology is.

  9. John Dietz, August 19, 2009 at 5:31 p.m.

    The fundamental problem is that people understand click through rate, it's easy and makes sense to them, as misleading as it may be. So the real question is how do we move the needle to a metric (or set of metrics) that really matter, and that they can use to compare campaigns and placements? Impressions is certainly not the answer, nobody builds media objectives based on impressions. Find the metrics that makes sense, make them as easy to understand as possible, and make it obvious what the value is.

  10. Chuan jer Lim from Yahoo! Southeast Asia Pte Ltd, August 20, 2009 at 9:51 p.m.

    In all major digital conferences and workshops, everyone in the room usually agree that CTR is not the way in a single voice. but if you look closer, most of the times, clients are not in this room. Even if they are, when they return to their place, their boss will start pressurizing them on ROI which CTR is the most commonly understood concept.

    simply put, this mindset will not go away until we find another metric that is as understand-able as CTR and can be reported by your ad serving provider w/o going through a whole lot of configuration.

  11. Laura Betterly from Yada Yada Marketing, Inc., August 21, 2009 at 10:31 a.m.

    ROI and effectiveness of the campaign is the bottom line, but am I missing something here?? CTR is an indicator that the ad is good or not. There are many metrics to look at and maybe being Google certified makes me look at this differently, but with all the noise and clutter out there we have to look at clicks for what they are--individual people who found the ad-graphic-message interesting. I don't know about you, but that's who I want visiting my sites...

  12. Melissa Anderson from Wetpaint, August 25, 2009 at 6:21 a.m.

    Great post, Cory! Sadly, the importance and value of the click has been over used, and another industry accepted "measurable" metric hasn't taken it's place in 10+ years. What about the value of engagement, which was mentioned in the article? Its effects are endless, as it moves your brand from being a "click", (and I can't tell you how many times I've accidentally clicked on ads) to a possibility of using the value of true engagement and moving your brand into the conversation - and now it becomes two dimentional.

  13. Brian Quinn, August 26, 2009 at 10:21 a.m.

    Ah, the evangelical work to convince marketers of the value of those 99.9% of impressions that don't get clicked on... will our mission ever cease? I have lost track of the amount of conversations I have had with WSJ print advertisers who just can't get their heads around the fact they are reaching the same quality audience as they do in the paper, only more of them and in a more engaging manner. As for the question of the next metric that can change this... I argue that smart and creative media planning can deliver impact right now... disciplined use of frequency capping, high-profile home page takeovers and custom solutions, true investment in creative, etc... But all of that goes by the wayside if marketers and agencies do not value the much sought after eyeballs that premium publishers attract every day.

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