The 'Fat Finger' Meme Needs A More Full-Fisted Defense

The concept of the fat-fingered accidental ad click has become more than an occasional theme in mobile advertising that is supported usually anecdotally by some outlier research claiming a substantial problem. On a Bloomberg program yesterday, BTIG analyst Richard Greenfield raised concerns about Facebook’s mobile monetization strategy based in part on the presumption that the ad performance on the social network’s ads are being driven by mistaken clicks.

Greenfield reiterated the argument to The New York Post as well. “People don’t have trouble with a mouse or touch pads… . But on mobile, when you’re gliding through a touchscreen everything is touchable, and a lot of mistakes are happening,” he was quoted as saying.



In most stories on the purported ‘fat finger’ syndrome in mobile advertising, a study from Trademob is often cited as claiming that 40% of mobile clicks were found to be fraud or accidental. Actually, I covered that story and had several exchanges with Trademob about those statistics. In fact, they argued that 22% of the clicks they measured were likely accidents, and their main case was that the clicks had such poor conversions. Fraud was indicated by a cluster of clicks coming from suspicious or the same sources.

They assumed that the other batch of low conversion clicks were indicative of people never intending to tap the ad. A Trademob spokesperson explained it to me this way back in September in an email exchange: “These clicks, which still show such low conversion rates, are more likely the result of awkward banner positioning (which attracts clicks that a user didn't intend, due to bad placement and a small mobile screen!) or a banner placed somewhere that makes someone click on it because it seems like there is no other way to get past the ad and into the app.

Well, this may or may not be so, and I am not sure that conversion rates are indicative of what Trademob labeled “useless clicks.” But it is clear that if the fat finger meme is going to become part of everyday analysis of mobile media, then we had better have some studies aimed at locating the problem and generating best practices around addressing the issue, whether it is real or perceived.

I think almost all mobile and tablet users have been frustrated by microscopic or unclear close buttons. There are more than a few ad units out there that seem designed to attract the unintended click because their operations are left suspiciously unclear. Since I work with a number of devices across manufacturers and operating systems, I can attest to the marked difference in accidental clicks I make according to the quality of the device itself. Many of the lower-end tablets suffer from poor touch sensitivity that forces the user to swipe aggressively (did I just say ‘swipe aggressively?’) and increase the likelihood of mistakes.

The issue of the false click may be raised even more often once the market proliferates with half-sized tablets. The rumored arrival of the iPad mini in coming weeks could flood the market with screens that are used for apps and Web browsing designed for larger displays. Personally, I find the in-between size of the 7- and 8-inch tablets like the Nexus and Kindle Fire much more prone to accidental clicks, largely because the scale of the screen is not really up to the task of navigating most Web sites. In many cases I am thankful when a site detects my smaller tablet reader as a mobile browser. Without much content really designed for the 7/8-inch display, it is better to default to it being an oversized smartphone.   

I don’t want to make light of the accidental click issue, because it has real implications for the progress of mobile marketing. The issue is that we just can’t say with any degree of certainty what kind of problem this is. For PPC-based advertising the fat-finger problem poses a real issue, and so the major players in search and other such models should be behind research and establishing best practices. But also worth considering is whether purported false clicks really matter much to a campaign that is being wisely measured off of conversions, not raw click-throughs.

But again, it may be time for more rigorous study of this phenomenon, whether and to what degree and where the fat fingers really are at play in mobile media. Ironically, it took a decade and a half for the online advertising industry to take notice of the literal invisibility of most of their ads, and only now are we seeing an acknowledgement of the practical and physical limitations of browser based media. Fat finger syndrome is something akin to mobile’s version fo the “viewable impression,” a fundamental issue about the physical behavior of a digital platform than impacts the value of advertising here. Let’s take a more aggressive swipe at this one now rather than a decade from now. 

4 comments about "The 'Fat Finger' Meme Needs A More Full-Fisted Defense ".
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  1. Brian Stoller from Mindshare, October 10, 2012 at 5:43 a.m.

    Agreed Steve. But would suggest we need two sets of research to review the two issues you've identified: Of the 40% of 'unwanted' clicks (Fraudulent, or Fat Finger), Fraudulent Clicks concern a media planner the most as this is someone blatantly stealing and hindering our investment. The industry needs a black list of known fraudsters, and a means that will allow us to easily identify click fraud the way the wired web infrastructure has support mechanisms to do so. In regards to Fat Fingers... some better design by the creative types should be able to improve performance and reduce waste/accidental clicks. I advocate for an inactive pixel border around banners, buttons, and close boxes to minimize unintentional clicks. But a little research on how many pixels does is the average "fat finger click" cover would be greatly beneficial.

  2. Mark severini from AdTheorent, October 10, 2012 at 10:04 a.m.

    Agree with Brian that there is a drastic difference between Fraudulent Clicks and "Fat finger" ones.

    At the end ofthe day post-click conversion tracking will be an effective measurement tool for evaluating the true value of the click as you do metion Steve.

  3. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance, October 12, 2012 at 4:52 a.m.

    Re: "22% of the clicks they measured were likely accidents". Depends how you do the math. If they considered people, instead of total clicks, to remove the bias caused by a few people who click a lot of adverts, I think they'd show that most people - those who click rarely - click by accident almost all of the time.

  4. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance, October 12, 2012 at 4:57 a.m.

    The worst example of "fat finger" clicks is Facebook. I dislike adverts for borderline-illegal products such as escort agencies and bogus slimming products and complain whenever I see them. This requires clicking a tiny cross at the top right of the advert, so unintended clicks on the body of the adverts are inevitable.

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