Few people would disagree that online advertising has come a long way in recent years. And yet, even as the technology races ahead, a debate continues to swirl around two very basic questions: Can an online ad still be effective if no one clicks on it? And if so, is there a reliable way to measure the effect of such impressions?
These questions might be basic, but they're also critical. After all, the vast majority of ads are never clicked on. When a user sees an ad but only visits the site hours or days later, it's known as a view-through visit or post-impression visit. If a user then converts or spends money, it's referred to as a view-through conversion or view-through revenue. Brands can verify a view-through via a cookie that is dropped on the user's browser when the impression appears.
The source of the skepticism
The major complaint about view-throughs is obvious enough: You just never know. Sure, someone saw a Zappos impression and then visited Zappos.com the next day, but how can we really know if the impression led to the site visit? Maybe that same day the user ran into an old friend who was wearing a nice pair of shoes that she'd just bought on Zappos.
Online advertising was supposed to make this sort of uncertainty a thing of the past. By relying on clicks, marketers could know exactly what worked, making the entire industry infinitely more efficient. Skeptics maintain that tracking view-throughs takes online advertising in the wrong direction -- back to the days when all you could do was make a big spend and hope for the best.
View-through skepticism may well be attributed to a critical mistake that was made early in the history of the view-through. The time between the appearance of the ad and the visit to the site is known as the view-through window, and the length of this window is important. If you see a Zappos banner and visit Zappos.com a year later, not even the most stalwart view-through supporter would suggest attributing the visit to the ad impression.
Setting the right window can be a tricky process because the right length of time really depends on the nature of the campaign. Unfortunately, when view-throughs first came onto the scene, the windows were usually set to 30 days. This might be appropriate for campaigns that are asking users to consider major purchases, such as automobile campaigns, but for most ads, 30 days is a long time to wait between the impression and the visit. The shame is that, to this day, many marketers don't realize that view-through windows are adjustable and can be set for as short a period of time as 24 hours.
The fact that media owners have tried to game the system hasn't helped quell the skepticism. The scheme is simple: You buy up millions of super cheap impressions and spread your cookies far and wide so that you can take credit whenever a user ends up on a site that is running a display campaign. Still, if "cookie stuffing," as the practice is known, was once a legitimate issue, it's now quite rare, and thus no longer a strong argument against tracking view-throughs.
Why the skeptics should reconsider
In light of these reasonable concerns, why do we -- and most other marketers, for that matter -- continue to track view-through metrics for our digital campaigns? It's true that view-through impressions are not a perfect science, but, as counterintuitive as it may seem, a view-through is actually a more reliable measurement than a click.
Just because clicks can be counted doesn't mean that they should be counted. Research from comScore and Starcom MediaVest reveals that 84 percent of internet users never click on an ad. Even worse, the remaining 16 percent who do click appear to do so almost randomly. The clicks don't correlate to actual on-site conversions. Meanwhile, view-throughs can account for over 90 percent of site visitors and over 90 percent of pageviews once a view-through user arrives. Other studies show a strong correlation between online view-throughs and visits, search traffic, and revenue.
And, again, while the view-through metric may not be perfect, that doesn't mean it's entirely unscientific or that it can't be studied. To appreciate and measure the value of a view-through, you just need the right tools and techniques.
Getting started is relatively easy. To determine the incremental value of exposure to unclicked ads, marketers can easily compare samples of users who previously encountered a display ad to users who arrived at a site without exposure to an ad. Marketers can also look to search data. There's a small mountain of evidence showing that even if you don't click on a brand's ad, exposure to the ad makes you more likely to search for the brand and click on its search ads.
But the best case of all for view-through is perhaps that it dates back to the origins of advertising itself. Or, in other words, view-through is not so different from offline advertising in many respects. Agencies running off-line campaigns can point to powerful correlations between campaigns and increased sales, but, in most cases, can't definitively prove that any given customer is responding to campaigns. And yet no one would suggest that offline campaigns have zero value or that attempting to measure their success is pointless.
And view-through is superior to most offline campaigns in an important respect. If someone arrives at a Walmart store, Walmart can't be certain that they saw the Walmart billboard on the highway or the full-page ad in the local paper. With a view-through, a brand at least knows that the user was exposed to the ad, even if only briefly.
After reading the above, we hope you agree that it's time to move beyond the debate about view-through. Or, at least, it's time to move beyond the debate about whether a view-through is a valid and measurable metric. This doesn't mean the discussion should end here. There's still plenty of room to disagree about the best techniques for measuring view-throughs, the ideal view-through windows, and plenty of other small details. But with respect to the big picture, sometimes it's as simple as trusting your gut. After all, if seeing an ad is worthless, than the advertising industry has much bigger problems than the view-through.
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