Monday, October 18, 1999


 Rex Briggs, Executive Vice President of Millward Brown Interactive ( sits in a unique position to address the question of branding versus direct marketing. As the winner of the Atticus Award for Direct Marketing and the Tenagra Award for quantifying Online Branding, Millward Brown Interactive knows how the Web can be used for brand building and how it can be used for direct marketing. Mr. Briggs’ articles and research tackle online marketing measurement and strategy.

Let me begin by clearly stating my bias. Do you know the metric we call clickthrough (the percentage of people who transfer from an advertisement to the advertiser’s Web page)? Well, I loathe it. Not just a little bit either. As a researcher by training, I typically love data, but never have I seen a metric responsible for more confusion and poor marketing choices. Clickthrough is a treacherous metric that ought to be abolished.

Before I argue for the abolition of clickthrough, though, let me first give a brief history of why it exists, both from a direct marketer’s and a brand advertiser’s perspective. In the early days, the Web publishers needed a hook. They wanted the billions of dollars spent on direct marketing and advertising. To get it, they needed something to demonstrate that online banners were doing something for marketers. Focused on the needs of direct marketers, Web site engineers cooked up clickthrough (using a redirect page on the Web server to allow the Web publisher to count the people leaving the site through an ad banner). Clickthrough was born.

Clickthrough, it was thought, would be similar to measuring the number of people who open up a direct mail envelope. Problem is that direct marketers don’t really care about how many people open the "envelope." They care about how many people "buy" the offer. The same thing holds true for direct response banners. It doesn’t matter how many click. What matters is how many buy.

Direct response marketers used clickthrough while they waited for their Web site engineers to develop systems to track sales rather than clicks. Once these systems were built, direct response advertisers rejected clickthrough like the bad habit it is. Savvy direct marketers will tell you, "Never mistake direct response for any possible type of activity that occurs after you have laid down hard cash. Direct Response is marketing communication that prompts an immediate and specific action. Anything less isn’t success." Clickthrough, in other words, is meaningless to direct response advertisers and most have abandoned the metric.

But while direct marketers have ditched clickthrough, many brand-oriented advertisers still use it. Why? Let’s first draw a distinction between brand and direct response advertising. Emily Soell , a well-respected direct marker put it best: "The primary purpose of communication in direct marketing is to provoke a discrete, concrete action – to get a prospect to buy, try, join, donate, subscribe, request additional information – respond to the message (hence ‘direct-response’)… Like a retail environment, direct-response must elicit an instant, impulsive purchase, inquiry or demonstration of interest from the consumer before they leave ‘the store.’ … Direct-response creative, therefore, needs the stopping power of a bad accident and the magnetism of a solar eclipse... Conversely, general advertising assumes (and in fact benefits from) the built-in time lapse between receipt of the message and the actual purchase. The mission of general advertising creative is to implant and replant a reason to purchase that prospects carry with them – often at a subconscious level. Then, when a need or buying opportunity presents itself, customers will reach for the advertised product, for reasons they may not even be aware of at the time.".

Ultimately, direct response and branding have the same goal – to sell. Simply put, direct response and branding go about achieving the same goal in a different manner. Direct response focuses on getting someone to buy the product now. Brand advertising focuses on getting the consumer to buy the product the next time they have an opportunity to buy.

So why do brand advertisers use clickthrough? The use of clickthrough is symptomatic of brand advertisers losing sight of the nature of the product they are marketing. The art of the brand advertiser works by building and enhancing key perceptions and relationships with the consumer such that the next time the consumer reaches out to buy the product, they are more likely to consider their brand. The fact is that many products must focus on "branding" precisely because there is no compelling reason why a consumer must really "act now." Why anyone believed that a successful branding ad would garner clicks is beyond me. Looking for clicks on a general brand advertisement represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how brand advertising works.

This argument that clickthrough runs counter to successful brand advertising isn’t just supposition on my part. We came to the conclusion based on empirical research. We documented the fact that clicking on the ad banner has NOTHING to do with effective online brand advertising in 1997 when Millward Brown Interactive conducted the Online Advertising Effectiveness Study. We observed nearly 17,000 Web users as they surfed twelve Web sites. We tracked their exposure to online ads and clickthroughs, and then intercepted them online to measure their responses to the 12 advertisements running on the twelve Web sites. The single most important finding was that clickthrough is not a valid metric to measure the effectiveness of online advertising. In fact, 97% of the increase in sales came from exposure to the ad (not clickthough).

For the online direct marketer, the measurement of an impulsive purchase is relatively straightforward, since the transaction takes place immediately upon seeing the direct response ad online. But for the brand-oriented marketer, which is anyone selling a product or service that is not purely purchased on impulse and relies on longer-term associations to fuel sales, the means of measuring effectiveness has not always been within their grasp. Many brand-oriented advertisers aren’t even aware that they can measure the effectiveness of their brand-oriented campaigns.

When I ask the brand marketers that use clickthrough why they use it, most say, "I can’t measure branding. I can measure clickthrough." Never mistake general advertising (or "branding") for an unobservable and magic phenomenon that you must accept by faith alone. Branding can be directly observed. It is measurable and can be directly linked to sales. We have measured hundreds of online ads with our "brandimpact" measurement approach. Other research companies quantify branding for traditional media all the time. The traditional arm of Millward Brown, for example, measures the effectiveness of television advertising for over one-third of the top 100 advertisers. Like traditional media advertisers, online marketers can and should measure the effectiveness of their online campaigns.

How do you ensure you are getting a positive return on investment from branding? Talk to the consumers and measure their responses. It takes 15 minutes to set-up a "brandimpact study," involves talking to the consumer for less than 10 minutes, provides quantifiable results within one day, and costs a fraction of most media buys. I can’t fault advertisers for not measuring branding results earlier – it hasn’t always been this easy and cost effective to measure branding effectiveness. But now that it is easy and cost effective, there is really no excuse for relying on clickthrough to measure online ad effectiveness.

So why am I so dead set against clickthrough? Why do I think it should be abolished? Clickthrough doesn’t measure success. It doesn’t work for direct marketers and it certainly doesn’t work for general brand advertising. In fact it undermines the success of both! Direct marketers understand their goal is to trigger a direct and immediate response (be it a sale, a trial, a subscription, etc) and they have quickly migrated away from clickthrough to the appropriate metrics of their success. Some brand-oriented advertisers seem stuck using clickthrough. Perhaps that is because alternatives to measuring online advertising effectiveness have not been affordable and easy to use. Research companies like Millward Brown Interactive have struggled to build systems to cut the cycle time for branding results down from weeks to hours to keep pace with the online marketers’ need for instant information. And now that these solutions exist, it is time to shed the inaccurate clickthrough metric for true "brandimpact results".


Marla Nitke IAB
[email protected]