The Down-Marketing of the Web

If you rely on banner advertising to drive response, you may well be targeting the bottom of the barrel. Contrary to what you might think, banner clickers have more in common with infomercial-watching couch potatoes and sweepstakes-loving downmarket consumers.

A new ComScore report reveals a mere 6 percent of Internet users make up 50 percent of all display ad clicks, a far cry from the conventional wisdom that held banner ads attracted a pretty representative sample of online users. If that finding isn’t shocking enough, the demographics of those users will really knock your socks off: most banner clickers are between 25 and 44, make less than $40,000 per year, spend more time online than their non-clicker counterparts (though spend far less online than others proportionate to their time online), and are much more likely to be spending time visiting online auctions, gambling, or looking for jobs.

While this finding is pretty interesting (especially when considering the importance of clickthrough rates), it turns out it’s not all that new. An earlier study of “heavy clickers,” conducted by AOL back in 2007, found that those who clicked on banner ads tended to be strongly older “middle America” females who like to look at online sweepstakes. As Dave Morgan, who until recently was executive VP of global advertising strategy at AOL, put it, “these are the same people that tend to open direct mail and love to talk to telemarketers.” They also seem to be the same kinds of people who watch infomercials and play “casual games” online.

What does this mean for online marketers? I don’t think it’s a value judgment to say it seems that people who click banner ads are not representative of the market many of us are trying to reach with online advertising. While much conventional wisdom still clings to the myth that Internet users are somehow more affluent, more highly-educated, and more sophisticated than non Web-users, the fact is this characterization is totally wrong now. Today, the demographics of the Internet are a lot closer to the demographics of the offline world than ever. And with broadband penetration increasing as rapidly as it has been, even making distinctions between broadband users and the “rest of” the Internet is pretty foolish.

We’ve reached the tipping point and plunged over the edge.

It no longer makes any sense to consider the Web the domain of the young, hip, affluent, and tech-savvy. Web users are much more likely these days to look like Wal-Mart customers than Nordstrom customers. And without being too stereotypical (though those of us who must break down audiences into market segments are obliged to be), people who click on banner ads seem to be more Dollar Store than Urban Outfitters.

If you’re running online display campaigns for which success is measured by clickthrough rates, it’s obvious why these studies matter…particularly if you’re using display advertising to market high-end, high-ticket items to younger, hipper folks. If you are, you’d better think hard about what you’re trying to do with those ads, because chances are (and the evidence suggests) your target demographic just ain’t gonna click on your ads.

Of course, there are exceptions– the ubiquitous Snorg Tees probably being the prime example — but even those exceptions can teach us a thing or two about what really works when it comes to driving traffic using banner ads. Witness the online celebrity the Snorg Girl has enjoyed. Those ads certainly aren’t working because of their masterful art direction. Ditto on the inexplicable “dancing person” mortgage ads that have proven amazingly effective.

At the risk of being labeled a snarky classist snob, I think it’s worth saying: what works when it comes to direct-response banners (and sweepstakes, and consumer direct marketing, and infomercials, and online gambling) appeal to an audience’s baser instincts. Banner ads that work our lizard brain are more effective in general than high- falutin’, high-concept ads that win design competitions (as much as it might hurt all the creative directors out there to hear it). Not that there’s anything wrong with that, so long as you’re know who the people are that you’re going to reach.

It probably isn’t who you think.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.