By Jim McCarthy Aug 2, 2012 0 comments

The Accidental Click

Years ago, when online advertising was a relatively easy game to play and win, we used to speculate how low click through rates could go.  We always reasoned that there must be some rock-bottom point where people were clicking not because they were interested at all in the ad, but by accident.  Perhaps they meant to click something nearby.  Perhaps they were just tired.

This gave us a great big laugh back in the late 20th.

But, lo, the world of the future!  We have discovered the Accidental Click Through Rate!

Here’s the story:  Ted McConnell and a team of online ad experts created some ads and showed them quite randomly on a wh0le bunch of sites, a whole bunch of times to see what would happen.

The one special thing about these ads is that they were completely blank.  Either orange or white rectangles with nothing more on them.

The result was .08% clickthrough.  For those of you who don’t live in the world of online advertising, that’s better than average, but still, as I’ve said before, pretty miserable when you consider it means that only 8 of 10,000 people who see your ad will click on it.

But why in the heck would anybody click on a blank ad?  Ted and team wanted to know that too, so they asked.  Here’s what they came up with:

“We detected no click fraud in the data we counted. Half the clickers told us they were curious, the other half admitted to a mistaken click. To obtain further insights, we tracked hovers, interactions, “mouse downs,” heat maps—everything. (Heat maps detect click fraud because bots tend to click on the same spot every time.)

Our data suggest that about four clicks in every 10,000 impressions are unintentional, and there was some variance by site.”

In other words, about half were people who wanted to know what was up with a blank ad and half were, hooray, accidental.  That means that a click through rate of .04% (give or take) is the lowest that click through should go on ads like the ones they displayed.  (Of course, they could go much, much lower on smaller, less noticeable ads.)

The main message here is that this kind of advertising is extremely unresponsive.  It’s becoming a form that, unlike its direct response origins, more resembles outdoor advertising, where the goal isn’t action, but saturation.  In other words, if you don’t go big, you might as well go home because the direct response value of it is depressingly low.

But it’s not a depressing story overall, because nobody loves advertising, do they?  Shoving more ad impressions into more parts of the page or the app or the NASCAR isn’t really in line with the values or desires of the customer or the human being on the receiving end of that advertising, is it?

One last thing to remember: if a business, however large, is built on advertising, the implicit assumption is that somebody else, somewhere is actually selling something in order to make it worth their while to advertise.  If, as on Facebook, you have a major part of the business coming from entities like Zynga, you’ve got a conundrum: Zynga advertises on Facebook to get people to play its games.  BUT, its business model relies significantly on selling advertising too.  It’s no longer a majority of its revenue, but without it, the company would be hard pressed.

It would be like a radio station advertising on a TV station.  Not that such a thing wouldn’t happen, but you can tell more easily in that example that it’s unhealthy.

If it feels wrong to you that a whole industry can be based on selling ads that nobody clicks on, pay attention to that feeling.  The bill hasn’t yet come due on this, but be certain that, like always, it will.

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