Less than Zero.

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Spring is upon us.  The swallows have returned to Capistrano, the snow tires have been replaced, baseball fans are experiencing either irrational exuberance or premature despair (depending on your team).

And it’s time for our annual discussion of the click-through.  Sure, you may have thought that we’d all moved on by now.  Certainly no rational marketer or agency buyer could still value a metric that’s been so thoroughly discredited?   But you ignore the staying power of a simple bad concept.  The idea that consumers will click on display ads (or videos) and navigate away from what they’re doing in order to visit advertiser websites is, of course, false.  Yet all these years later, it’s still with us.  Click-through attribution is the “birther” movement of online marketing.

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The latest rational argument against the click comes from Pretarget and ComScore as reported by Jason Del Rey in Advertising Age (“Click-Through Rates May Matter Even Less Than We Thought.”) The big headline in this study is that even among the microscopically small share of customers who actually do click on ads, there is virtually no correlation between the click and a subsequent conversion. So not only do clicks not matter to brand advertisers, they are at best meaningless and at worst misleading and wasteful for direct response advertisers. One might be able to shrug this off or explain it away if weren’t the millionth data point in an airtight case for burying the click-through once and for all. Only ignorance, self-interest (it’s a handy negotiation anchor for the buyer) or self delusion could explain it’s continued role in the debate, right?

No, there’s one more explanation.  Our own complicity in the lie.  For too long sellers and agency leaders have been willing to treat the click as a minor annoyance.  At times, we’ll even use it to our advantage when it suits us.  What we’re not doing is saying, forcefully, “this is not valid…we will not count clicks, we will not value clicks, we will not talk about clicks for another minute.”   When serious people stay silent about silly ideas, they take on a sense of legitimacy they don’t deserve.  And they end up drowning out all the smart, serious debate.

If we don’t take intellectual leadership on this issue — and soon — we’ll be talking about it for many Springs to come.

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