Can Clicks Hurt?

One of the most painful lessons I learned early in my career is how easy it is to focus on the wrong metrics. I was distributing consumer electronics products from Asia into the United States, and I was fixated on raw material costs, labor prices, and dozens of other metrics that I tracked on a constant basis to gain a slight edge. Yet ultimately, I was completely caught off guard by a measurement I never thought to track - the impact of a banking and currency crisis. The collapse of the East Asian currencies in 1997 rendered all of my metrics totally useless, and wiped out many of my suppliers.

Today, online brand advertisers suffer from the same problem. They track dozens of the wrong metrics, because they are readily available. Recently, Online Spin columnist Cory Treffiletti made an impassioned plea to get rid of clicks as the primary metric for measuring brand campaigns.

This seems obvious, but marketers need some way to show their CEO success. Until we find a better metric, clicks will continue to be the de facto standard. Perhaps there should be a bigger concern. Can clicks actually damage a brand?



The answer is less obvious than you may think. Hundreds of billions of page views get generated each month by users in social networking, online gaming, and other Web-based applications that are surrounded by ads at the edge of the screen. The ads sit in static locations, so users quickly learn to tune them out. They are too focused on playing video poker at work to be bothered with your miracle diet pill.

This creates a conundrum for both advertisers and publishers. Publishers know that if advertisers do not see high click-through rates, they will jump ship. Conversely, advertisers are relying on the only metric we have given them to measure the success of an online brand campaign. So they do a deal with the devil; they create ever more annoying ads. They make desperate attempts to drive clicks using monkeys as punching bags, and brief shots of scantily-clad women. But to what effect?

If an advertiser's goal is truly branding, then driving clicks by annoying the user is a horrible approach. Not only will it detract from the user experience, but it will also damage the very brand it was intending to build.

This problem is magnified in applications like gaming or social networking that require a login. The click either breaks the application by taking the user to a new Web site, or spawns a new window, which is effectively a pop-over. These are both highly undesirable approaches.

An ad that causes you to lose a message you were writing, or interrupt a game you were playing, will be the last ad you ever click. This may explain why a recent study showed that 50% of all display ads were clicked on by only 7% of users. These users either have really poor mouse skills, or way too much free time. Spawning a new window is equally problematic. Study after study has shown that popping up an ad in a new window is the fastest way to lose both trust and users.

Brand advertising within social networking and other applications does not have to damage the brand and user experience, but it does require that publishers and advertisers start working together differently than they have in the past.

First, we need to get rid of standard ad units for use within applications. These ads stick out like a sore thumb, and because they are run by third-party networks, lack any integration into the application. If the goal is to measure the brand and the impact of advertising on the brand, then monitoring page views and clicks is completely useless. Publishers should be incentivized (read: compensated) to creatively integrate the brand as deeply as possible in ways that drive brand value.

Second, advertisers need to develop relevant content that fits within the context of the application they are advertising with. This means advertising on fewer websites, and building content development into the cost of advertising. It also means losing the landing page in favor of integrated and useful content that will not break the application when clicked.

Third, get rid of the hyperlinks. Please. Not every logo or Sponsored By image needs an embedded link to a boring landing page. Links should only exist where they can drive a user to relevant content.

Fourth, and most importantly, we need to develop a quantitative survey that accurately measures the impact of brand advertising on awareness and preference. Advertisers should measure brand awareness (and related metrics) on a given publisher's site before a campaign begins to establish a baseline. Then survey every X days during the campaign to monitor progress, and conduct a final survey at the end of the campaign to measure the differential. If publishers were compensated on the incremental brand value they added, they would be much more thoughtful about how to integrate the advertising and how to communicate with their users.

You don't need a social graph or 18 months of click history to deliver advertising that is useful to users. You just need to build advertising that doesn't make the clicks hurt.

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