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The Great Click Debate

  |  August 30, 2010   |  Comments

Do people need to click on your ads for them to matter? Or is there value to getting exposure to the brand?

Sex, religion, and politics. Macs vs. PCs. There are some topics that most of us avoid talking about in "polite company." And if you're in online marketing, there's another topic that you probably avoid, too: whether or not clicks matter.

The Great Click Debate has been raging pretty much since Wired posted the first banner ad way back in October 1994 that asked the question "Have you ever clicked your mouse right here?" and answered it with a bold "You will!"

Clicks were the great promise of online media. While traditional advertising could only be measured by sampling, surveys, and other guestimation methods, online advertising was sold as being completely accountable. Gone were the days that made department store mogul John Wanamaker complain that "half my advertising is wasted...I just don't know which half." With the click you were going to know exactly what part of your advertising was wasted.

It didn't take long, however, for the promise of directly-measurable online advertising to fade. Publishers and ad folks who were used to being able to finesse the value of the campaigns they were running in traditional media were suddenly confronted with - gasp! - having to account for why the ads they were selling their clients weren't working. Icky terms like ROI (define) started to creep into uncomfortable conversations with clients who wanted to know why nobody was clicking on their ads.

The industry soon responded by working hard to convince their clients that even if people weren't clicking they were still being exposed to the brand being advertised and by golly, that had value! In 1997, the Interactive Advertising Bureau released a study that said that online ads were effective even if people weren't clicking on them. And thus the Great Click Debate began.

Like so many great debates, the "clicks vs. branding" debate is often fought with "facts" generated by people with a stake in one side or the other. Obviously, the IAB study mentioned above has a bias because it comes from the industry group whose sole purpose is to (I kid you not, folks) sell online advertising! More recently, groups like Nielsen have been pushing for a "GRP-like" system of measuring online advertising that ditches clicks for exposure. Digital agency Eyeblaster is now hawking "dwell" as a metric to replace the click, arguing that the amount of time a user spends viewing or interacting with an ad is a better metric than whether or not they click through it to another site.

New technologies have added to the debate. While various social media formats provide somewhat "traditional" display advertising models in one form or another, now "clicks" have been overtaken by measures of "social engagement," which seeks to couple brand awareness with social media activities around the brand. Not to be outdone, mobile media also is being touted as the great brander, with some studies finding that "mobile ad campaigns are 5 times more effective" than traditional online ad units. Yowza!

Of course, the other side (read "Google," "Facebook," and other CPC and CPA properties) have risen to fame and fortune because of clicks. They've embraced the direct-response model whole-heartedly and have been embraced by everyone from big CPG advertisers to mom and pop businesses around the globe. Their self-service offerings that combine high levels of accountability with the efficiency of only paying for what you need have appealed to the long tail of niche advertisers and those with hard-to-reach target audiences and limited budgets. Last time I checked, Google and Facebook ain't doin' so bad. (Oh, and they do branding, too.)

So, who's right? Well, I'd like to settle the Great Click Debate once and for all so I'll just come out and say it: they both are.

A cop out? No, the truth.

See, the Great Click Debate is a lot like the Great Mac vs. PC debate. Zealots exist on both sides, fighting a holy war over details that matter to nobody except them. To right-click or not? Should clicking an "X" quit a program or just close a window? Whatever. It doesn't matter. What really should matter is whether or not you're using the right tool for the job that's in front of you. PCs are better at some things. So are Macs. It just depends on what you want to do and what you're comfortable with. Arguing the point is idiotic.

The same goes for clicks vs. brand exposure/dwell time/whatever. Choosing the right metric to measure the effectiveness of your campaign isn't a matter of holy doctrine but rather should be based on (and I know this is going to shock you) what you're actually trying to accomplish. Wow. What a concept.

If you're going for brand awareness, use a format that's better for building brand awareness. More likely than not, that's going to be a format that's large, bold, and can contain video, animation, or allow for interactivity...in short, a display ad format. If you're trying to drive response, use tools and techniques that drive response: attention-grabbing display advertising that invites clicks (ahem...dancing mortgage ads...ahem) or place yourself in front of the consumer who's looking to solve a problem or answer a question, i.e., search marketing, CPC (define), or CPA (define) ads.

That's step one. Step two is to use the appropriate measure for your goals. That means that if you're going to be running a branding campaign, you should measure your success by brand awareness measures, not how many clicks the ad gets! On the other hand, if you're trying to drive leads (clicks or other actions that take the consumer to a website or landing page), then for gosh sakes measure leads...but don't expect that you're going to move the "awareness" needle too much. You might (Facebook ads seem to be good at doing this because of their size and target-ability), but that's not what you're being measured on. If you want clicks, count clicks!

Yes, I know that this a somewhat simplistic view of things. After all, brand-response marketing says you can do both. But even though it sounds simple, it's awfully hard to realize in the "real world" where clients (and/or bosses) seem to often want both. Setting expectations with them from the beginning (clicks or branding), buying media that matches your goals (display ads or CPC text ads), and reminding them throughout the campaign about what you were being paid to measure (response or awareness) can help you mitigate misunderstandings and misconceptions. In the end, you gotta deliver what you promised, but at least everyone will know what that is.

Sean is off today. This column was originally published on May 10, 2010 on ClickZ.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sean Carton

Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.

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