Metrics Will Change Again

In the beginning, there was the CTR. It seems like so long ago (actually a scant two decades), but online advertising started by measuring click through rates. Never mind that those rates fell precipitously over the years as advertising proliferated. It took a long time to figure out how, or if, we could measure the ROI on digital advertising by using something other than CTRs. In those early years, the supply side only got paid on CTRs. Some in the industry realized that they could hire people to click on ads. Thus the first online advertising scams were born.

We should have known from the start  that CTRs were a ridiculous metric.  Never mind the bots that clicked on ads, or the fraudulent “click farms.”  Even with a clean supply chain, CTRs weren’t a good metric. After all, if an agency or a brand submitted an unmemorable ad, how could that have been the fault of the publisher on whose site the ad ran? It took more than a decade to bring that conundrum to light, and to agree that CTRs were only valid for performance advertising, and digital had “graduated” to more than just performance advertising; it was also useful for brand advertising.

So we moved as an industry from one lousy metric to another: impressions. The rise of programmatic and RTB gave media planners the ability to buy “impressions” at scale. Now it became a question of how many people were “exposed” to the brand. The thirst for impressions, however, did more harm than good, as publishers redesigned their sites to handle as many impressions as they could. For a long time, buyers didn’t even know what they were buying; they bought blind, to the potential detriment of their brands, and they bought impressions that weren’t even viewable.

But it gets worse. In the thirst for impressions, we lost the sense of advertising’s true intent: to convince a customer to buy a product or service from a brand. Even viewable impressions don’t help measure this return on investment. You and I instinctively know that just because we saw an ad, we might still not buy the product. We might be counted as an impression, but we might not be the target, or we might not have the need, or the funds.

Despite all the metrics we’ve tried over the years, we still haven’t solved the problem of predicting which consumer is going to make a purchase. The newest suggestion for a metric is engagement. But how do we measure that?  Cross-channel campaigns are held out as the answer: keep hitting the same consumer with a brand message everywhere she goes.

This metric is too novel to be judged right now, but because of new EU privacy laws, the increasing use of ad blockers, and the impatience of consumers with being tracked, we hesitate to say it will work any better than the metrics before it.

Let’s quit overthinking this stuff.  It’s time we were honest with the consumer, told our story well, and went back to the store to wait. The consumer is in control.