Ever since comScore published "Natural Born Clickers" in 2009, our industry has worked to produce new criteria to measure consumer engagement. Literally thousands of bylines and presentations have been published with the intention of moving our industry away from the click.
Today, CTR has largely been relegated to the dustbin of measures to all buyers except the programmatic re-targeters, none of which know how to measure, or act on, consumer intent. (If they did, why would they continue to send us display ads for what we just bought?)
There are better ways to accomplish this, and the technology exists today that enables buyers to discern consumer intent with far more accuracy and precision. When you have a window to the surest signals of customer intent, you can make sound decisions and take appropriate action. So what's holding us back? Why do so many buyers still look only at traffic to their own domain when discerning what consumers want or need?
The devil we know
The main reason why the old measures remain in use is that Google -- the backbone for perhaps half of all U.S. interactive media -- has succeeded in propagating its search-oriented mentality beyond search. Ironic as it may seem, since Google wasn't around when CTR was becoming established as the normative measure, CTR remains the primary KPI for display advertisers online, and even for many video advertisers.
It's easy to assign blame here on the quant mentality that pervades online advertising, and that points some fingers at Google. The rise of the long tail -- then social media -- enabled better cost-per-impression ratios (CPM), which makes for higher efficiency if CTR remains the same. But, if the audience is a jumble, and not clearly defined, let alone self-selected, buyer beware.
The birth of click bait
The rows of listicles with come-on photos at the bottom of many news articles and other features have created new sub-segments within interactive. Now we have content recommendation, native campaigns, native retargeting, and content recommendation optimization. Bundle all of these under the same, worthless rubric: click bait. Taken together, these may add up to one $2B segment in terms of marketer spend. Wake me whenever a marketer says their buy made a difference. Taboola, Outbrain, and others in this space created something worthwhile that has morphed into the internet's version of those irrelevant ad books you throw out when they arrive in your mail.
Return to relevance
Relevance is what all this is about, after all. No matter what the medium, advertising only works when it's relevant. The thing is, relevance isn't just about the subject matter of the creative. It's also about its timing and targeting. Taking these into account, it's clear that CTR is a trivial measure when compared to actual engagement. Our industry's fixation with CTR is what brought us the problems with viewability, fraud, and bots. After all, if what we'd been measuring all along was something only humans can do -- engage with a creative unit -- we would have precluded a ton of hassle.
Today, many new analytics providers are focused on different kinds of measurement - from Sticky, which uses the cameras on devices to discern where consumer eyes are on the page, to Encore, which takes a broad view of every campaign and enables buyers to optimize across channels against almost every measure. Buyers have more tools than ever with which to measure consumer engagement across devices and optimize against their campaign's KPIs. But many of these same buyers who have long bought campaigns on sites whose publishers buy traffic have been willfully ignorant of the composition of that audience. This is obviously a crucial mistake, especially with the tools available to them today.
The debate of engagement
Media segmentation used to be the best proxy for audience, and to a certain degree, it remains a useful starting point. But with the audience-targeting tools available to buyers today, there really is no excuse for ad campaigns that don't engage. Marketers have to understand what is more likely to be relevant to their given target cohort before they buy. It's not just about what messages they push, when they push them, and how. It's also about how precisely segmented their audience is, and what that audience has already demonstrated in terms of intent. You might think that Michael Learmonth's immortal "The Pants That Stalked Me On The Web" piece in Ad Age would be seen as archaic now, more than five years after he wrote it in August 2010. But what he complained about then is just as true, if not more intrusive, today.
Marketers have no one to blame but themselves. The fact is, the tools are there for the using that will provide a clear view into the consumer journey. However, they're just not being used by enough savvy marketers enough of the time. Like any evolution, the future promises more use of these data sets to provide a much better consumer experience, and ultimately much more relevant and effective use of targeted advertising.