Why It's Time To End Our Love Affair With CTR

October 12, 2020


Back in 2005, Google Analytics laid down a template for ad campaign measurement, establishing clicks as a proxy for campaign effectiveness. The industry followed, and considering what a big deal paid search (which benefited from this model) was in 2005, you can't blame it.


Click-through rate (CTR) remains a leading metric for brand campaigns today. In other words, the industry continues to give a whole lot of credit to a metric that is older than any iPhone.


Our day-to-day digital reality is one of mobile, connected devices, infinite scroll, multidevice households and digital out of home.


We are exposed to multiple screens in the home and out. The experiences of all of these formats and environments vary immensely. Desktop, connected TV, mobile app, outdoor display, gaming — clicking isn't even possible on some of these. CTR is simply not a common-denominator metric for the way we experience media, and it is important to measure across all channels because a campaign's ability to persuade grows each time it reaches the same user on a new platform.


CTR no longer captures how consumers interact with ads — and it doesn't suit today's premium digital experiences. As a brand, do you want to be in environments where audiences are deeply focused and engaged, or do you want high CTR? Asking for both can be a tricky proposition.


Ironically, industry leaders generally understand that CTR is outdated for brand campaigns. The challenge lies in demonstrating ROI outside of an old, familiar model, particularly because there isn't a lot of consensus among advertisers about clickless measurement best practices or industry standards. Still, I believe the industry is closer to flipping the model from CTR to clickless than many may believe.


Embracing More Meaningful Metrics


Even where clicks are possible, I've found that increasing numbers of publishers are pushing for clickless metrics, telling advertisers that environments with deeply absorbed users are worth spending on. Captivated users will see the ads surrounding the content they're consuming, but they're unlikely to click on them, so with clicks as a core performance metric, advertising around compelling content doesn't back out performance-wise.


Instead, we should be looking at metrics such as session duration, which refers directly to how long a user spent on the page content (and thus, how engaged they were). That's why many publishers have been optimizing their pages with unobtrusive UX to keep users on the page or in the app.


Infinite scroll now rules the in-app environment, and it's increasingly popular in browser environments as well. With infinite scroll, metrics like time spent or scroll rate are more meaningful than clicks. Infinite scroll is especially helpful for driving engagement with content on mobile, where advertisers would be well served to consider formats that are easily viewable but not disruptive such as overlay rather than mid-roll video ads. Attention metrics are a more appropriate way than CTR to measure this kind of engagement.


Clickless metrics are also the next logical steps after optimizing for viewability. In the three years since Procter & Gamble demanded viewability, publishers have made substantial strides. This was no easy task for ad ops, design and editorial teams. It's time for brands to decide what they want to do with all those viewable impressions. Answering that question calls for a drill-down on understanding of clickless metrics that matter — data-based metrics like session duration, pages per session, scroll depth and new vs. returning users, as well as attention metrics that are harder to gather but are more meaningful, like brand lift and return on ad spend (ROAS). These metrics, in tandem with viewability, can help advertisers understand where their money is best spent.


The First Steps Toward Clickless Measurement


The catch is that change is often hard. It calls for a shift in mindset but also may necessitate a shift in process. However, change has to start with action. Here are three ways you can begin to wean your organization off a reliance on clicks as a measure of anything meaningful.


1. Conduct an audit of your current system of metrics. What assumptions underlie them? For example, if you had a goal of building brand awareness in your recent campaign, is it reasonable to expect consumers to click on your ad? It might be more conducive for your goal to have them stay with that page of content and perhaps just look at your ad a few times. Maybe the time spent on the page would be a better measure of how well the ad hit home. Advertisers need to start the difficult process of questioning some of the decisions that have informed media planning for many years.


2. To be successful, this process of change will need to embrace all parties, internal and external. Change creates work, so everybody needs to buy into the motivation to alter methods right from the start. Your media agency will likely be a central player in the metrics audit, but you should also consider involving key publishers as early as possible. The obsession with clicks has influenced the way publishers design their content to encourage ad clicks, so if you plan to start using different KPIs, you need to simultaneously consider the impact on their operations. Aim for maximum transparency in everyone's best interest.


3. Invest time and budget in informing yourself and your colleagues about best practices in attention metrics. Consider joining groups like the Attention Council that bring together leading advertisers and agencies to collectively research how to use attention-based metrics.


It might feel like a lot of work compared to the status quo of "set it and forget it" CTRs. However, there is a golden opportunity right now for progressive advertisers to set the bar in this developing area and create much more demonstrably effective returns on their marketing investment.


Written by Ken Weiner 



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