More sophisticated digital advertising metrics are on their way


We may never think of a click the same way again.

On May 23, Google announced the release of the beta for a new tool called Google Attribution that heralds a broader change in the way brands and PR professionals think about digital advertising.

Advertisers have primarily used clicks as a key measure of the effectiveness of an ad since at least 2005 with the release of Google Analytics. What do we mean by clicks or “click-through rate?” The click-through rate is the rate at which users actually click an ad. So, the theory went, if users clicked on an ad, the ad was working. If they didn’t click, it wasn’t working.

But is click-through rate an unsophisticated measure of the effectiveness of digital advertising? For one thing, when someone clicks on an ad, a brand or organization has no sense of that person’s prior interactions with that brand or organization. No real sense of if that customer might want to engage further with an idea or product – only a sense of where the person saw the ad and where he or she went after clicking it. That’s what Google is starting to change with Attribution.

For example, a customer might hear about a product on a podcast, see an ad for the product on Twitter and receive a promotional email advertising a sale on the product before they decide to click on a link, never mind pony up the cash and buy it. Each ad that the customer was exposed to may have played a role in influencing the final decision, but by measuring the “final-touch” click alone, one might believe the final ad was most effective.

Further, given advancements in mobile technology, users today interact with most websites through scrolling, not clicking. News sites, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are all built around users scrolling through content without needing to click at all. But advertisers are still using clicks to measure how ads are performing on those sites, instead of the amount of time a user spent looking at a given post or the ways in which a user interacts with the content.

Google Attribution and other products with Attribution capability like Bright Funnel and Bizible promise to change all that by measuring more interactions customers have with a brand and calculating which interactions helped to persuade the customer to purchase a product. This system is especially important for those of us who work in digital media, and who may now be able to form better digital advertising campaigns designed to have a greater impact on target audiences. Instead of the unsophisticated clicks or vague data like “impressions,” we will soon be able to further fine tune our digital efforts, drive greater impact, and even show clients more robust data on how their audiences are interacting with their brand or message.

The impact of products like Google Attribution will go beyond just improving data reporting. They have the potential to change digital advertising for the better, opening up new ways to communicate with audiences. Because clicks have been the standard measure of whether an ad is effective, most digital advertising campaigns have been designed to get customers to click on an ad. This constraint has changed the way ads are produced, in the same way that television ads would be different if they were all infomercial-style appeals that had to end with “call now!” With the ability to evaluate the impact of different kinds of advertising, we can know more about what works and have greater impact.

20/20 hindsight may say that the years of declining click through rates on banner ads and rise of native advertising widely seen as being more effective may have been a harbinger of this shift in digital landscape. But even native advertising is a product of an advertising schema that privileges clicks above everything else. With tools that measure beyond clicks, there will be more precise ways to quantify the success of digital efforts, freeing us to design campaigns that don’t rely solely on clicks as a central goal. For example: You could create a Twitter ad that’s an optical illusion, meant to catch the eye of users scrolling through their feed and make them stop and stare. Under a click-based model, this ad isn’t particularly useful. But by measuring more than clicks, you might be able to get an idea of whether the ad catches a user’s attention and makes them more susceptible to a follow-up marketing email. That’s an exciting prospect.

Our ability to measure the impact of digital activity with greater specificity may be felt in the digital advertising space, but its impact could be even more far-reaching. News organizations have long used generating clicks on links to articles as a primary measure of success. If media organizations, already struggling to find their way in a digital-first environment, use more sophisticated data collection (and some already are), they will be able to track how their subscribers interact with their product more robustly, potentially making “clickbait” less valuable and prolonged customer interaction more valuable. Some of the newer measures include scroll-speed (which indicates level of attention), shares of the page or an excerpt from the page, time spent on a page, and whether a user finishes an article or returns to the site, among others. Media organizations like the New York Times have already begun to roll out content designed to develop reader relationships rather than garner clicks, such as their “Watching” feature, which creates custom TV and film recommendations.

Don’t get your hopes up too quickly, however. As much as everyone would love to see the end of annoying clickbait headlines, Google Attribution is still in beta testing. Its effects, at this point, are mostly theoretical and its reach is only on Google’s search platform. But it was Google, after all, who ushered in the hegemony of the click when they created Google Analytics in 2005. Attribution could mark another a sea change. Google clearly will be a player in this new way of looking at digital advertising. Others will soon follow and you can bet that we’ll be paying close attention.