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Why the click is still important


There has been a spate of discussion lately about the usefulness of the simple click. To many, the click is an outdated form of measurement. Indeed, too many want to stop measuring clicks altogether. These people, while well-intentioned, are wrong. The click is as vital as ever. It should be said: The click is the most important digital measurement of all.

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It is easy to burn down a barn, but it is incredibly hard to build one. Just ask any carpenter. Replacing the click as the primary metric is a bad idea. Clicks dominate our lives because they are simple to explain and easy to track. Clicks can be optimized on the fly, allowing for real-time insight. Most importantly, they can be used to compare different publishers or placements in an easily understood manner. No single metric serves as a viable alternative to the click.

Clicks are the first step on the path to success. Direct-response marketers are not in the business of collecting clicks -- frankly no one is. Instead they use clicks to sell goods and services. Clicks act as straight forward indicators of interest. Just like people who walk into a store are potential customers, clicks are potential transactions. A click is the first real consumer action toward that ultimate goal. To paraphrase Lao Tzu, the thousand-dollar sale begins with a single click. But do not be deceived: The click is just the very beginning of the transaction chain -- not the end.

Unfortunately, brand advertisers live in a much more complex world. Brands have to content themselves with qualitative matters like awareness, lift, and favorability. However, emotional values are not easily measured. We need a range of tools to understand how our media affects consumer perceptions. But we cannot directly correlate any of those metrics to the placement level. Indeed we must be content to measure those on a campaign-wide basis. Clicks, however, allow us some measurability at the placement level. It is the first real indication of a consumer's attention.

My friends who sell rich media (RM) technology consider interactivity to be superior to the click. Rich media is a great concept: engage the consumer on his terms (time and place). Undoubtedly, such engagement produces intellectual and emotional involvement. However, interactivity is an obtuse metric easily misconstrued -- different RM ads cannot be objectively compared. All RM interactions are not created equal.

One unit's post-expansion action may be as important as another's initial interaction. It depends on the creative concept and ad's design. Clicks, though, are easily compared in any given situation. Regardless of the ad format, we can compare the click response. That is an apples-to-apples comparison. Even the RM's biggest boosters tout that the most engaging ads earn the highest click rates. Marketers rely on the humble click because it is simple. That universality is why we grab on to the click despite the power of rich media ads. The click's simplicity is its genius.

I heartily agree that rich media can produce a powerful effect. But, like a tuxedo, rich media has its time and place. It is not for every occasion. Indeed, if all ads were rich media ads, the tool would lose its power. Simple SWF files can often serve simple messaging better. Certainly as a companion to a pre-roll video, static JPGs are better still. In those cases, the banner should not distract from the video messaging.

By the same token, basic messaging like "sale ends Saturday" can be as or more valuable than complex communications. There are a number of important placements that do not accept rich media. Many email clients such as AOL, Gmail, MSN, and Yahoo do not readily accept expandable RM units. Facebook, this country's second largest website, lacks robust RM positions too. Sure, rich media offers a plethora of useful metrics, but they are not a panacea.

As counterintuitive as it might seem, clicks are integral to in-stream advertising. The video completion rate is increasingly important as buyers shift their budgets to pre-roll video. It is not enough to measure served impressions. Rather, buyers need to measure how many times the videos were watched. This important metric sets online video apart from TV. However, video completions are incredibly hard to externally track. Its usefulness is inhibited for real-time stewardship.

Meanwhile, even the critics have to agree that video generates a much higher click rate than anything else -- including rich media banners. When analyzing their in-stream video, clients love the corresponding high click-through rates. Even video campaigns rely on clicks as a measure of success.

Reach and frequency are easily measured by third-party ad servers -- but not really. The ad server measures unique cookies which we typically deem a proxy for actual human beings. However, approximately 30 percent of people delete their cookies each month. Moreover, our various computers (work, home, tablets, and smartphones) count as multiple uniques, even though they are used in the corporeal world by the same person.

To add insult to injury, none of this accounts for exposure to offline media. Given that TV accounts for the majority of media consumption, this is a huge consideration. We cannot realistically posit campaign reach while excluding the No.1 source of impressions. Sadly, online reach and frequency numbers are estimates at best. Clicks, on the other hand, are absolutes. A click is a click except for when it isn't. Click fraud is easier to identify than cookie deletion.

To be fair, brand advertisers can conduct brand research studies to measure emotional impact. These surveys are helpful in measuring the impact of advertising on qualitative metrics like brand lift or purchase intent. Let's be honest: Even those studies rely on clicks for recruitment. It would be pointless to argue that clicks to study brand effectiveness are more valuable than ad clicks. Some clicks can't be more equal than others (thanks George Orwell).

Moreover, these studies exhibit a certain level of socio-economic bias. The more money a person earns, the less likely it is that he or she will participate in a brand survey. Finally, surveys seldom help real-time optimization. Most issue reports well after the campaign has ended. Real-time brand surveys are still in their infancy. Again, clicks allow a degree of real-time control that other metrics don't.

I am not here to argue that clicks are the only metric that counts. We can all agree that many other data points are integral to effective advertising. Concepts like interactivity, video completions, and frequency can all help convert consumers into customers. But they lack the straightforward candor of the click. Clicks are a definitive measure of consumer interest and are easy to compare across different unit types. They indicate that someone is interested in learning more about your brand. After all, what is a website if not a smartly designed, interactive brochure?

It is not easy living under the authoritarian rule of the click. Clicks are black or white; vendors either deliver or they don't. There are clear winners and losers. Publishers that do not deliver the goods inevitably cite the comScore study that states, "Nobody clicks and nobody ever will." Instead they argue that they delivered good branding. I counter: Response rates are low for all media -- digital or traditional. However, that does not mean that we should stop measuring clicks altogether.

Moreover, the absence of clicks does not necessarily mean the presence of quality branding. Customer feedback or independent data must support that claim. Exposure does not automatically equal branding.

Before you replace the click as your primary measurement tool, consider what you will use instead. This is crucial, as you must use specific criteria when planning, stewarding, and analyzing the campaign. It is only OK to burn down the house that clicks built if you first know how to rebuild it. As for me, I imagine I will die the way I lived: clutching a box of clicks. They will have to pry them from my cold, dead hands.

Andrew Ettinger is the vice president of interactive media at RJ Palmer Media.

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Spencer Broome

2011, August 11

The click is important, just in varying degrees.