The Click-Through Conspiracy
This trend is about the great big lie at the heart of the digital marketing industry.
It feels like every day I hear about some nifty new measurement technique: multi-touch algorithmic attribution, eye-tracking studies, MRI brain scans. You could be forgiven for thinking that we’re living through a glorious revolution in marketing measurement.
But we’re not.
In fact, all of those nifty solutions obscure a simple truth: the most commonly used metric in marketing is clicks. How many clicks did I get? What was the rate at which people clicked? What’s the cost of those clicks? If a campaign gets lots of cheap clicks, it’s considered a success.
Now, this is less true for lead gen marketers. Lead gen marketers learn to ignore the clickthrough rate since it rarely correlates with conversion rates, cost per lead, or revenue per lead. But brand marketers are in a much tougher spot. Brand marketing is notoriously diﬀicult to measure and clickthrough rate is delightfully easy to measure. So brand marketers made a convenient assumption: that CTR must be a reliable indicator of brand lift.
Oh, how I wish that were true. Our jobs would be so much simpler.
But unfortunately, clickthrough rate is not a reliable indicator of brand lift. At all. Researchers have been pointing this out for almost 20 years. Below is a study from Nielsen. What it shows is that the ad that generated the most awareness, the most recall, and the most purchase intent is almost never the ad that generated the most clicks. Clicks don’t correlate with brand lift.
If you don’t believe Nielsen, that’s cool because Nielsen is not alone. That study has been replicated dozens of times by many diﬀerent measurement vendors, for many diﬀerent channels, and the findings are always the same: clicks are a meaningless metric.
This makes sense, if you think about it. Ads can work without clicks. An ad can generate an exposure (like an impression), or it can generate an interaction (like a click), and both can drive results. You can see an ad— in the feed or in between TV shows—and the simple act of seeing it can raise your awareness of a brand without ever triggering an interaction.
In fact, that’s how advertising worked for a hundred years. Almost every brand you know—Coca Cola, Apple, Nike—was built in a world of exposures, not interactions. If an ad has to generate interactions in order to work, all marketing before 1995 was a failure. And all ads since 1995 must also be a flop, because almost no one seems to click on ads.
But listen, smart marketing minds have been making this point for decades. The IAB even has a new campaign out called “don’t be a clickhead.” The MRC may discredit clicks as a metric. And yet, no one in the marketing industry seems to care. I hear about CTRs and engagement rates on a daily basis. Until about a year ago, I spent all my time optimizing campaigns for clicks.
So this got me and my colleague Jon thinking: maybe we, as an industry, have been too soft on the clickthrough rate. Maybe we need to prosecute the case with a little more vigor. Maybe we need to dial up the anti-CTR rhetoric from like a moderate “2” to a more extreme “9.”
Maybe I was born to play that role, because I’ve got a pretty extreme opinion on clickthrough rates. You see, I don’t think clickthrough rate is a meaningless metric. I think it means something. It just means something bad. I believe CTR is a negative indicator. In other words, if you have a very high CTR, it may be a sign that your marketing isn’t working.
Why, you ask?
Well, these days, when clients ask me how to improve their CTR, I tell them it’s quite simple. I have discovered a magical formula for getting more clicks. First, we’re going to develop some truly awful creative. And then, we’re going to run that awful creative in the crappiest, most disreputable media channels of the internet. Bad creative + bad distribution = high CTR.
Please allow me to talk you through my magical formula.
Let’s start with creative. There is a word in the English language for creative that gets clicked on a lot. The word is “clickbait.” Now let me ask you, would you say that “clickbait” is generally a compliment or an insult? Have you ever insisted that your friend watch some inspiring clickbait?
Of course not. Clickbait is an insult. And that’s because the type of creative that gets clicks on the internet is usually awful. It’s stuﬀ like: “You Won’t Believe What Brad Pitt Looks Like Now.” Or the LinkedIn equivalent, “72 Tips To Getting A Promotion.” Researchers have found that blank banner ads get much higher clickthrough rates than real ads. Will clickbait or blank white boxes build your brand? Of course not. But if you chase clicks, that’s where you’ll wind up.
Now let’s talk about audiences and the types of people who click on ads. Well, it turns out a lot of those people are actually…robots. That’s right, a high clickthrough rate is considered a leading indicator of ad fraud. You’ve heard of clickbait, so I’m sure you’ve also heard of clickbots. Some say that 85% of the clicks on the internet are fraudulent. If you run your ads in garbage media channels, like Babaganoush.com, where no kind of sign-on is required and the site itself might be fake, you’ll meet all kinds of wonderful robots who will be happy to click on your ads.
If you run on premium media channels, you will reach real humans, like IT decision-makers who are hardwired never to click on an ad. That doesn’t mean the ad doesn’t work on IT decision-makers, it just means you have to optimize for the exposure instead of the interaction. Interactions are nice—I’d rather someone read the whole report than just see an ad for five seconds in the feed. But interactions almost never happen, so their value is essentially irrelevant.
Listen, I know this may be a tough pill to swallow. It’s awkward to admit that the metrics we’ve been optimizing for all these years doesn’t actually mean anything. But the good news is that we are all in this together. I call it a clickthrough conspiracy because there is plenty of blame to go around. The platforms put clickthrough rates in their dashboards. The agencies report on clickthrough rates. The clients cut budgets based on clickthrough rates. We’re all guilty.
But it’s time to swallow our pride and start ignoring clickthrough rates. Instead, let’s focus on metrics that actually matter. Metrics that have been proven in serious econometric research to correlate with business growth. Metrics like reach and share-of-voice, which the IPA has shown to be the single most important predictor of market share growth.
And listen, I realize that reach and share-of-voice are not perfect metrics either. Not all exposures are equal. There can be duplication. There can be fraudulent impressions. But I would rather track an imperfect metric that means something (reach) instead of a perfect metric that means nothing (clicks). I’d rather be imprecisely right than precisely wrong.
The truth is, marketing measurement will never be perfect. We are trying to influence fleeting thoughts in another human’s brain. That’s probably not quantifiable. Maybe not ever.
But marketing can still work without perfect measurement. In fact, it always has.
If you have a high CTR, it may be a sign your marketing isn’t working.
It’s time to swallow our pride and start ignoring clickthrough rates. Instead, let’s focus on metrics that actually matter. Metrics that have been proven in serious econometric research to correlate with business growth.