Who Clicks on Ads? Most Likely Not the People You Want

Posted on December 9, 2007
Filed Under Marketing 2.0 |

One of my readers pointed me in the direction of a blog post by Danah Boyd, a Ph.D student in the School of Information at Berkeley and a Fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society. In her post, Danah discusses an important topic: who clicks on ads displayed on the Internet and specifically on social networking websites. I’ve pointed out that quite a bit of evidence exists showing that social networks have not delivered for marketers and have also argued that logically, they never will at the level expected. Because of this, I found Danah’s post quite interesting.

First, she points out that Dave Morgan, Executive Vice President of Global Advertising Strategy for AOL, has already looked at “behavioral and click data to try to determine whether most or many people click on ads, and of those that do, whether they are different than the Web population in general.” As noted, :

We learned that most people do not click on ads, and those that do are by no means representative of Web users at large.

Ninety-nine percent of Web users do not click on ads on a monthly basis. Of the 1% that do, most only click once a month. Less than two tenths of one percent click more often. That tiny percentage makes up the vast majority of banner ad clicks.

Who are these “heavy clickers”? They are predominantly female, indexing at a rate almost double the male population. They are older. They are predominantly Midwesterners, with some concentrations in Mid-Atlantic States and in New England. What kinds of content do they like to view when they are on the Web? Not surprisingly, they look at sweepstakes far more than any other kind of content. Yes, these are the same people that tend to open direct mail and love to talk to telemarketers.

What does all of this mean? It means that while clickers may be valuable audiences, they are by no means representative of the Web at large.

Obviously female Midwesterners who like sweepstakes are not the demographic most marketers have in mind when they purchase online advertising. Nor are female Midwesterners who like sweepstakes the core demographic of social networking services.

Danah takes the information gleamed from Dave Morgan and asks “What users are clicking on ads on social networks?” Her hypothesis is interesting. She suspects social network ad clickers are:

  • More representative of lower income households than the average user.
  • Less educated than the average user (or from less-educated environments in the case of minors).
  • More likely to live outside of the major metro regions.
  • More likely to be using SNSs to meet new people than the average user (who is more likely to be using SNSs to maintain connections).

While there is not yet any quantitative data to validate or invalidate Danah’s hypothesis, it does seem reasonable on the surface. In my case, nearly all of my close friends are wealthy, were educated at top universities, live in the world’s most cosmopolitan cities and have no desire to use social networks to socialize with strangers. When I’ve asked some of them about online advertising (and more recently, Project Beacon), most responded by saying “I don’t care about the ads. I’m not going to click them anyway.” I would suspect that you (the reader) and your friends don’t either.

Clearly, if Danah’s hypothesis is anywhere near true, it would not only mean that the “goldmines” social networks are allegedly sitting on may not be minable, but that the entire online advertising market and how marketers perceive it is flawed. As Dave Morgan posits:

What does all of this mean? It means that while clickers may be valuable audiences, they are by no means representative of the Web at large. Focusing campaigns to optimize on clicks means skewing campaigns to optimize on middle-aged women from the Midwest. If these folks are not your target, then you should be ignoring the click-rate and looking deeper, to what audience your impressions are being delivered, and what audiences are converting (there is a large body of evidence that shows that click-rates and conversion rates rarely correlate with each other).

There are no easy answers for marketers, but there never have been and to expect online advertising to be a panacea is naive in the first place. While the “results” from online advertising campaigns are more “trackable” than campaigns in other mediums, online advertising increasingly faces its own unique challenges (ad-blocking technologies, more sophisticated consumers, fraud, etc.). I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I do have a few thoughts and suggestions:

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