My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Who clicks on ads? And what might this mean?

Advertising is the bread and butter of the web, yet most of my friends claim that they never click on ads, typically using a peacock tone that signals their pride in being ad-averse. The geekier amongst them go out of their way to run Mozilla scripts to scrape ads away, bemoaning the presence of consumer culture. Yet, companies increasingly rely on ad revenue to turn a profit and, while clicking on ads ?may? be declining, it certainly hasn’t gone away. This raises a critical question: Who are the people that click on ads?

A few years back, I asked this question to someone who worked in the world of web ads and I received a snarky (and condescending) answer: middle America. Over the years, I’ve read all sorts of speculations about search engine ads suggesting that people click on ads:

  • Because they don’t know that they’re ads.

  • Because they are perceived to be of greater quality than the actual search results (for example, in searches for travel).
  • When they’re searching for something that they want to purchase (intent to buy = desire to get to merchants quickly).
  • When they’re bored.
  • When they think that they might win something or get something for free.

Over the summer, Dave Morgan (AOL Global Advertising Strategy) blogged about a study that they did to investigate who clicks on ads:

What did we learn? A lot. 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.

Social media services like social network sites are not designed around the audience that Morgan suggests is the core of clickers, yet these too rely on advertising. I have a sneaking suspicion that a tiny percentage of MySpace/Facebook/etc. users make up the bulk of the revenue of these sites, just as with the sites that Morgan addresses. I cannot find any research on who clicks on social network site ads (does anyone know of any???), but based on what I’ve seen qualitatively, my hypothesis would be that heavy 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).

In other words, much to my chagrin, I suspect that heavy ad clickers in social network sites and other social media are more likely to trend lower in both economic and social capital than the average user. Unfortunately, I don’t have the data to test these hypotheses at all. (Does anyone? Are there any studies on class dynamics and ad clicking?)

Of course, while the ad world is obsessed with clicks because they can measure those, ad receptivity is more than just clicks. While people dream of adding clicks to TV, TV ads have been tremendously successful without the clicking option. Brand recognition, for example, is an acceptable outcome from the POV of many marketers. But the web lets us measure clicks so advertisers tend to care about clicks.

I am not an advertiser and I’m not invested in making better ads. Instead, by raising this topic, I’m curious whether or not web marketing is capitalizing on a niche group and, if so, what the societal implications of this might be? If my hypothesis were true, what would it mean if marketing is profiting primarily off of those who are economically and socially struggling? How do we feel about this philosophically, ethically, and professionally? Would we feel proud of living off of a business model that targets the poor?

Of course, my hypothesis may be wrong. Advertisers have historically flocked to the sites that draw richer, more educated, more urban populations. (As has media coverage.) They have to be doing this for a reason, right? Websites have historically tried to demonstrate that their users are such “ideal” consumers. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if these “ideal” consumers are really the people who buy most of the goods being advertised. (I’ve always been fascinated by how poorer American families tend to have immense amounts of stuff while rich American families pride themselves on minimizing quantity and maximizing quality of material goods.)

I should note that consumer culture has historically capitalized on poorer populations, long before the web. Studies of consumer culture have shown how American identity has been constructed through consumption over the last century and how, not surprisingly, those who have a stronger need/desire to prove their American identity buy into the consumer culture.

While studies of consumer culture go back decades, I’m having a hard time surfacing what is known about the culture of web advertising. Who is being targeted? Who is responding? Why are they responding? What are the implications?

You might be wondering why am I raising such a web-centric issue on the Shift6 blog. Mobile advertising is primarily growing out of the web culture. It may not be about clicks, but the idea of user responses builds on that. As advertising becomes central to every interactive technology in our lives, I think it’s important to step back and question who is being targeted, how, and with what consequence. Thus, as we are thinking about what it might mean to live in a world where mobile phone advertising is accepted, we must also concern ourselves with the implications of this.

(Note: it’s easy to read this from an anti-capitalist POV, but this should instead be read from the POV of a conscientious capitalist.)

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49 comments to Who clicks on ads? And what might this mean?

  • Warren Yoder

    faberNovel Consulting has released a white paper on the character of social networks. They do some interesting theorizing in the paper, eg. the difference between real and fantasized identity. I wonder if this idea will join other bits of accepted web wisdom that were also developed by marketeers – “Web 2.0″ by Tim O’Reilly and “Web 3.0″ by Nova Spivak come to mind.

    Good ideas come from all over. But I worry that the marketing mindset is working to construct a totalizing understanding of the web in which we can only be consumers, not citizens.

    You just bought a new car with full awareness of the marketing behind it. You are moving from academia to a career working with companies. Tell me not to worry, that I am just seeing patterns where none exist.

  • Warren: just so you know, I’m not moving from academia to a career working with companies. I have worked with companies throughout my PhD and I will continue to consult for them, but I have no intention of entering the corporate world full time anytime soon.

  • Online ads can function just like TV ads do in building brand recognition and driving attention to a company or a product, even if no one clicks them.

    There are several ads now, that while I’ve never clicked on them, I’ve seen them so many times I can render them perfectly in my mind.

  • That kind of data is more likely to exist with the client on a campaign by campaign basis particularly if there is a promotion or something where someone has to fill out a form to “win”.

    Anecdotally, I have heard that a lot of click and pay per click traffic is actually driven through squatter sites (i.e. i spell the url I want incorrectly which takes me to a site that has page filled with google ad word style links) vs. big media or social media sites.

    But considering the growth in affiliate network advertising market, I find it hard to believe that the pool is as small or as demographically challenged as that study shows.

    Dayna, any thoughts on the geographical differences between the UK and N.A as far as research into the potential success for the mobile advertising free model? Instinctively it feels like something that wouldn’t fly here…regardless of the brilliant marketing.

  • I think that ads have less impact because an increasing number of people are connected and can reach out to each other when they need recommendations (similar to how you asked for recommendations when you were looking for a new car).

    I believe that this is going to have a deep long term impact on companies: they are going to need to invest a lot more on products and make sure that they deliver on the promises they are making. It also means that marketing is going to become increasingly indirect – people will not care about your message but the story of their friends and other people they trust. In that context, marketing is more about creating environments where people can share micro reviews and try to amplify the positive reviews and less about crafting and pushing messages down our throats.

    I love your blog!

    -Edwin

  • Chris

    In the past, I’ve certainly been in the “Who would actually fall for online ads? Not me!” camp. But, in actuality, I do click certain types of ads. I think people’s ad-clicking behavior probably varies drastically from niche to niche.

    For example, look at webcomics. Most ads on webcomic sites are for other webcomics or similar “content-y” sites. My impression is that such ads have far, far higher click-through rates than average, and that users don’t resent them like they do a lot of other online advertising. It’s not hard to generate a lot of reasons why that would be so (it’s content that’s free to check out, people are in an entertainment mood already, the banners are often pretty, etc.).

    A first cut might be to distinguish ads for “content” from ads for “products”. However, I’m not sure that’s the best way to phrase it. I’d imagine ads for humorous t-shirt vendors are more like ads for webcomics than they are like ads for laptops or power tools. (After all, you can get something out of just browsing the catalog.)

    Anyway, I don’t really have a huge point here. Just that we need to figure out how to properly carve up “online advertising” if we’re going to understand how people interact with it. It seems to be both more and less effective that we’d first suspect.

  • Christopher

    There is another aspect to the question of “who is clicking on these ads” that I don’t believe has been raised. That is, if the ads are taken as indicative of “level of interest in the population at large”, then the people who are clicking on those ads are the ones who are driving marketing decisions for the world at large.

    In effect, I’m thinking “what if the companies think of ad-clicks as similar to Nielsen Ratings?”

    Imagine that the only people who submitted Nielsen surveys were from this group. If these people 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.’ then I might expect shows like “Battlestar Galactica” and “Chuck” to disappear in favour of shows that are more interesting to this narrow demographic. Is there a possibility that web content itself will be skewed in this way?

  • @Chris – December 3, 2007 02:36
    porn banners on porn sites also get much better click-throughs than average, I suppose. But I wouldn’t say that banners work (or even *could* work) just because of this…

  • Here’s a thought: Let’s suppose I plan to buy a particular book or a particular camera. I’ve already made up my mind on what I want, I just need to go to Amazon (or where ever) and place the order.

    So instead of going straight to Amazon, why don’t I go to one of my friend’s blogs – a friend that is monetizing his/her blog with ads – and click on an ad on my friend’s site to buy the thing.

    I’ve never done this because it just didn’t occur to me before. If everyone’s online friends did this, it would certainly create a whole ‘nuther demographic.

  • iit would create e great big scam…

  • A lot of this seems to be common sense. Clicking on an ad seems to be ‘opting in’ the way opening a direct mailer is (was). What amazes me is the quality of online ads. I intentionally do not block ads so that I can learn from different techniques, and I have to say, with the exception of the new apple-anti-vista ad, things are woefully inadequate (no pun intended).

    This is a problem that no amount of user data will fix, and it will be something that will eventually lead to web designers rethinking the pages they create in order to create a way for advertisers to really connect with their audience. But until some creativity happens ads will be the province of the Midwestern housewife.

  • rjan

    With all of these free services , it is sad that not more people help the service providers by actually clicking on a link from time to time.

  • Thanks, this was a great read! (Found via Scoble’s Shared Links)

    Anyhow.. “If my hypothesis were true, what would it mean if marketing is profiting primarily off of those who are economically and socially struggling?”

    Even if true, so long as it’s the advertisers who are paying, that’s their decision to make, right?

    It only becomes troublesome when you talk about things like “They don’t know it’s an ad.” If they are being predatory and/or deceptive (who keeps buying v111agra by email?), then it seems more problematic.

  • Jeremy Hartley

    I actually click on ads when I read something that interests me, or when I read some information that I find valuable.

    I don’t click on the ads because they interest me, but merely because I know that the author of the web site gets a few cents, and my click is by way of thank you.

    I generally control click on them in Firefox, so taht it launches into another tab, which I can then tidy up without even having to look at it.

    I’m not a middle american or female by the way. I live in the Netherlands and am male and work in IT.

  • ben

    I’m from the other side of the fence–a CD at an agency that makes online ads (sometimes). We do a lot of work to make sure the people we find (and the people who click on ads) are the people we are interested in reaching–based on the site traffic, the time of day the ads are served, and, for some sites, based on other sites you have been to before.

    People (yes, even cynical busy people like us) click ads when they are:
    1. Entertained and see something that may mean more entertainment

    2. They have the potential to get something they want (sweepstakes can tend to lower the economic bracket and increase the age, but this can be managed depending on the prize, the site, and the contest)

    3. They are getting something they already want (a hotel room, a cell phone)but faster and easier (and myabe better, with an offer) than they otherwise would. Sometimes this is when people are already shopping, but sometimes it is as they are just about to.

    All of this is confirmed by measuring them and their behaviors, sampling during the time they look at ads and click through, and as many other ways as we can unobtrusively think to do it.

    There is a real focus on finding ways for companies to use their marketing to genuinely ad value–either by creating content that actually interesting and engaging, or by using user behavior to get the right offers in front of the right people when they actually want to see it.

    Long post, but hope it sheds some light….

  • I think this is a fascinating POV, and it’s definitely one that I share to the extent that advertising is often not the net-native means of monetizing a web property. I wish more web properties thought about how to make their monetization strategy more endemic to their medium and site design. Instead, advertising is often slapped on as an afterthought as a site owner declares, “well, we’ve gotta make money somehow.”

    But, I think that you’re post mis-represents Dave Morgan’s original point. Dave is not saying that advertising is consumed and engaging only for America’s lower-class that subscribes to consumer culture. Instead, Dave is saying that when you optimize an ad campaign for maximum click-though, you are inadvertently optimizing your ad campaign for mid-western housewives. Dave argues that advertising can actually target many demographics, not just the lower-class consumer culture you describe… but, to target other, more-valuable demographics, you cannot measure the success of your ad campaign via click-through rate.

  • nik

    Perhaps the answer is in volume. I do consider myself to be among the “ad-adverse.” Most of the time I don’t even notice them. But there are a few times when I find the message interesting enough that I’m earnestly curious enough click it and find out more.

    For arguments sake, let’s say that, of the tens of thousands of ads served to users in a year, the median number of clicks is 5 (fewer than one every two months). In the United States alone, there are an estimate 210 million Internet users. At 5 clicks per year, the total number of clicks generated is 1.05 billion. That’s 2.88 million clicks per day or 33.3 clicks per second.

    33.3 clicks per second in the U.S., all from people who would never be considered “heavy clickers.”

  • I think most of you missed the point. IF the writers supposition is true that under privileged, lower income people are clicking thru then how do they get hurt?
    Its the marketer that gets hurt – HE/She advertised to the wrong person. The clicker did not buy anything- (do we know if they convert?) It means that ads in the web world are worth even less than we thought. It means that Googles revenue and business model is a huge scam?

    The impact is that it means that covnersion rates suck online because NO ONE AND the WRONG ONES clicks thru.
    http://pulse.plaxo.com/pulse/events/show/19647413/ It means this article i posted about direct mail is even more relevant, (I host a small data quality chat group on Plaxo).

    I don’t think as one commenter menetioned that businesses (rememeber its not just huge corporations that advertise) desire or expect to just build brand awareness. If I am going to build awareness its not going to be thru some google ad or a web page promo.
    I want click thrus and conversions to sales. That is the promise of internet advertising, cheaper access to 210M consumers of internet content.
    But what we don’t know is who our real users are. what their pyschographic profile is at that time. Is it a golfer looking for clubs for themself, or a wife looking for clubs for a husband or a Father looking for a sone/daughter?
    Most i.net ads are spam in one way or another. At some point direct mail will re emerge an more effective medium in CONJUNCTION with i.net based approaches that are measured on results not impressions or click thrus.

  • Hi danah. Actually BlogHer surveyed the readers of our ad network members recently about their responsiveness to ads, and the results were surprising (at least to me.) While contest, free stuff, discounts and even surveys were strong reasons that respondents reported noticing and clicking on ads, an equally strong reason was if the ads came from brands they already knew and liked.

    It seems to us that there is a kind of brand affinity and relationship that gets developed. Kind of “Hey, I like this blogger, and this company likes them too…and that’s cool.”

    I’m kind of the opposite personally…if I already know a brand then why would I need to read their ad or click and learn more, but apparently I am not everybody :)

    Some specific stats from that survey and the number of respondents were mentioned in this release here.

  • I’m not invested in making better ads.

    Not? not! Do you use the internet or like the internet or make any money from the internet? If so, you are heavily invested in making better ads! There are few other revenue sources online and this is unlike to change. Without ads Yahoo, and Google would close immediately, and most innovation would stop. Love or hate online ads, they are the fuel of change both good and bad.

  • This information is quite distressing considering some projects I’m working on use advertising as their primary source of revenue.

    In the past I ran a site that generated lots of traffic (over 500k page views per day), but still couldn’t generate any significant ad revenue. It was only able to survive through donations from the users, and eventually a paid service.

    Once Google Ad Sense became popular, it seemed to make advertising profitable again. But will it stay profitable, or will it bust, like it did at the end of the first .com bubble?

  • I’d be careful about drawing any broad conclusions about web advertising based on data from AOL. Is the data based on AOL subscribers, or behaviors on AOL-operated sites? Does it include banners (which have had low click rates for years) or text ads? The article from Dave Morgan doesn’t seem to itemize these important details.

    Without those distinctions, there’s not a lot of context for the conclusions you’re drawing. Text ads monetize far better than banner ads. Even within AOL’s properties, Engadget and TMZ are likely to have widely divergent user profiles and click rates.

    Web advertising is all about niches and targeting. The tighter the niche, the better the ads perform. Because web advertising allows you to track ad effectiveness, it is easier to align ads with demographics so you display relevant ads to users who are interested in the topic. With newspaper, magazine and TV advertising you have far less information about how well the ads are aligned with the audience, and how well they’re working.

    Technology empowers web ads to be “smarter” and better targeted. Many niche sites are experiencing the benefits of this. Social networks are more unruly than many niche sites, and thus harder to monetize. But I think that’s a more complex issue than the AOL data can address.

  • the part of this discussion that intrigues me is how to find a way to measure effectiveness of ads without having to use clicks as the gauge.

    i strongly agree that online ads function like tV ads in building brand recognition. i think that comparing them to print media ads would be more accurate, though, because print media is more capable of advertising to niche audiences. i’m more likely to support brands if i’ve seen them advertising on sites that i respect, same as i’m more likely to support brands if i’ve seen them advertising in my favorite progressive magazine.

    so in (semi-)answer to your question:

    > If my hypothesis were true, what would it mean if marketing is profiting primarily off of those who are economically and socially struggling?

    i think that your hypothesis needs to be expanded to include marketing from people who aren’t clicking. those of us who brag about not clicking ads are still affected by the marketing.

    also, there are ads all over sites that have very elite readership. so how does this hypothesis apply to those sites? is it the same 1% of viewers clicking through–the least-educated 1% of the elite? and/or does the total clicks-per-ad on elite sites end up being waaaaay less than on more mainstream sites? if so, why do advertisers still place ads with those sites? (brand recognition and brand association, presumably. so maybe there’s a starting place for some additional analysis.)

  • object_slice

    “Would we feel proud of living off of a business model that targets the poor?”

    Isn’t this the essence of capitalism? Consider banks and other usurers — they target the “poor” as well; it’s just that the “poor” in this case are typically the working middle class who can’t afford big-ticket items (cars, houses, etc) out of hand, and thus have no choice but to agree to mercenary interest rates on loans (although it might be said that no human actually *needs* a car or a house — but good luck in the winter). If they were already “rich”, they wouldn’t need the loans in the first place, so clearly the lenders are “targeting” the “poor”. Since this situation is socially acceptable (nobody’s really fighting it), it’s unlikely that anyone is losing sleep over the web equivalent of targeting the vulnerable.

    I’m not surprised to hear confirmation that ads have much less value than the hype would have us believe. When you see that “[verb] the [noun] to win a [popular-consumer-item]” flash-based trickery is still a very popular ad paradigm, it suggests that web-vertising is never going to be a golden goose.

  • JS

    You make some very good points. Everyone I know hates clicking ads. They look at banner ads like spam in the junk folder. I have often wondered, is there actually anyone out there that doesn’t mind ads and you have answered this question, thank you :)

  • I asked a student today (in the context of her questions about the business of a web site that seeks to drive traffic in order to sell ads) how often she actually clicks on advertisements. Her answer was interesting: “When I’m reeeeealy bored, or when the ad is annoying me a lot.”

    I’m not sure what that means, but it’s clear to me that whatever models we have for the relationship between ad-clicking and purchasing behaviors are likely quite impoverished compared with the complexity of how people relate to their online experiences.

  • Oh, wow. I was just thinking of this a few days ago. Now I don’t feel so alone. :D
    I like the rest of the entries you’ve written here. I love the vocabulary you use, as well as the (dare I say it) snarky tone you maintain. Keep it up!

  • From AOL’s perspective, they may see more clicks from the demographics described above, but at an advertiser level, it’s just a matter of keywords. I doubt many people matching those demos search for auto parts, men’s running shoes, or high end Linux based web hosting, but those services all do very well in search marketing.

    Looking at run of site banners, there are a LOT of sweepstakes and prey on the poor type ads, so that may be more what AOL is describing.

  • I first thought the 99% was a wet-finger or a declarative measure: it’s actual logs. From a biased (AOL) portion of the population. A study of “several months” with “monthly rate” and long tails seems a little bit fishy, statistically speaking.

    Then, it’s banner ads. I’m not sure why they would not be able to include targeted, search or key-words based ads (that’s the good side of have a oligopoly: easy to list the participants).
    Andrew Parker made more of the needed criticisms to that answer.

    The question is interesting, but only a part of the problem: two fellow researchers in my labs worked on business models of on-line content, and banner ads were one of many general methods (with automatically targeted, tailored, free-mium) albeit the largest in terms of revenue, and the slowest growth.

    I’m sorry to prove your mothers (Isn’t that who they are?) wrong, but I wish banner ads the same fate as junk mail: save paper, spare the electrons. No one is going to win a million; Brian is dead; no I won’t die if I bury that karmic chain mail: if you want to give them thrills, sell it to them, in a book, a movie, instead of lying to them. That way, 99% of us wouldn’t have to use scripts to cope with the amount of garbage. Not that I would condemn anyone who did as much as spammers and banner ads to help the understanding of the bayesian filter and the script-literacy.

    After all, with such a targeted demographic of click-throughs, why us banners anywhere else then on specific sites?

    All in all, I’m glad some people still expect to use the Internet to sell books and fill conference halls, because otherwise, I would be bored, really fast. . .

  • I actually work for a company that does a lot of online advertising campaigns, so I think I can shed some light this. The honest-to-god truth is that the people in charge of these campaigns have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about. They describe their target audiences with phrases like, “Interested Non-Users,” or by using terms they’ve made up, such as the gag-worthy “prosumer.” Clients ask for a “viral” campaign, and by the way, they would like it live and “viral” by next week. A friend of mine said he had to shoot down one of those noise-making banners in a meeting. I don’t want to name companies in a public post, but for the sake of contextualizing this, let’s just say they are large and well-known.

    When discussing the click-through rate of banner or email campaigns, the discussion centers around fractions of a percentage point. These are not highly effective campaigns (I’d wager that many of them even lose money), but the people in charge of running them have a poor grasp of what they are actually dealing with. I often find myself wondering whether the people pitching these ads have ever been on the internet at all. They hear buzz words such as “viral,” and they say, “Yes, I want that,” without actually grasping the concept behind what they are asking for.

    My suspicion is that a lot of the heavy click-through is associated with people who are new to the web. Most urban people (especially those with a higher level of education) have been using computers and the internet for some time now. We recognize advertising, and we’re jaded towards it. Many people who do not use computers at school or work are new to all of this – they haven’t built up the thick skins that the rest of us have. Rural housewives are probably the demographic with the most click-throughs because they are one of the newest demographics to get online. I consider my own mother to be pretty web-savvy, and she is neither rural nor a housewife, but I’ve watched her accidentally click ad banners and wonder why she’s suddenly on a different site.

    Of course, the punchline to all of this is the fact that most click-throughs don’t translate to actual sales. If an ad campaign is relying on accidental click-throughs, or on attracting the attention of a niche market who can’t afford what they’re selling, then the joke is on the person footing the bill. The model is clearly broken, and most people in the industry know that, but the people signing the checks aren’t in on the joke.

  • Gerg

    “I’d wager that many of them even lose money”

    It’s the old saw that advertising boss knows that half his advertising money is wasted — he just doesn’t know which half.

    To be perfectly fair you have to consider what products you’re selling. If you’re selling stuff nobody really wants then sure you’re going to be stuck with whatever people mistakenly click on your banner because it was too flashy to ignore.

    But if you’re a travel agency and I’m searching for a plane flight then I might really click on your link along with whatever search results look relevant. There’s no reason your link is necessarily less useful than the things google found and when the text sounded like it could be useful I have clicked in the past.

    And I’m a tech-savvy computer user who does run an ad-blocker and religiously adds new advertising servers whenever one slips through. I’ve been online since before there _were_ ads on the internet.

  • Interesting article.. there is a very simple overriding reason why people click on ads – it is something that interests them at that moment. So for example if you are looking to buy a car and you see the ad then you are much more likely to click on it.

    Of course most adverts are not relevant to people most of the time – and this is what the best marketers work hard to achieve – show the right ad to the right person at the right time. This is obviously very difficult to do in practice whilst maintaining an individual’s privacy!

    AOL has traditionally had a very different target audience to other web portals – in fact you only have to look at the types of ads displayed inside AOL’s walled garden to see this – they are all aimed at those lower socio-economic groups (which traditionally at least here in the UK has been their customer base).

    However if you look at Yahoo Games for example, you will obviously see more computer games advertised – and there is sufficient interactivity with these ads (both from a branding and click perspective) to make them worth purchasing.

  • I agree with you. The effectiveness of ads should be measures by the awareness it creates rather than by the clicks they get.

  • You can’t have the filthy rich without the dirt poor.

  • In a talk this fall, Hal Varian (professor at my school and consultant at Google) gave a talk called The Economies of Internet Search. Some interesting data from his talk:

    – 2% of ads might get clicks
    – 2% of clicks might convert

    Of course, I still wonder who those .04% are because I don’t suspect that it’s distributed by taste/income/etc. The wisdom is that targeting works, but I suspect targeting works better for some groups than others (as well as for some consumption acts more than others).

  • Pardon the long detour, but I think there is a difference between marketing and advertising, and that difference is illustrated between Google and ads (even the ones on Google).

    I consider Marketing to be ultimately concerned with delivering product/service from supplier to consumer (using both terms in the general sense). I consider Advertising as a means of establishing and maintaining demand from the consumer side, by “cultivating” mindshare. When Advertisers inflate their role to that of actual marketing, you find notions that ads have currency beyond mindshare; click-through as a performance metric is a shining example of this conceit.

    Consider the following, highly simplified, purchase pattern (with looping and recursion folded away):

    Needs/wants –drive-> customer tendencies –to-> search/consider –then-> buy/lease/subscribe –and-> review.

    While ads can be inserted anywhere in this chain, Advertising remains a subset of the needs/wants drivers. Period. Search engines live in the search/consider phase, and bank on the transitions between search and buy. As a search engine, Google provides links, and as such, is a Marketing outfit. The ads that show up on search engines (including Google) are riders.

    As far as capitalization goes: I find it difficult to believe that Web users are being taken advantage of, for choosing to navigate via hyperlinks (marketing) that have a picture/noise/animation/slogan (advertising). That behavior might be a sign of disadvantage of some kind, but I think advertiser-induced disadvantage would result in a growing percentage of users with that condition.

    Also, I think Elisa’s onto something there; I haven’t followed the link she posted, but I suspect the “knew and liked” set have view the ads as (marketing) links, not ads.

  • Seems to me that the good old: presenting a good offer, at the right time, to satisfy an identified need is the way to success.
    Especially for us who operate in the B2B marketplace, we see that ad scheduling and careful site selection is still working just fine.
    Personally i do not run any ads on social networking sites as i expect that when my potential customers are visiting those places, that are not in a “work” state of mind and i do not like wasted clicks

  • Steve

    I do computer work for a small publisher of craft and hobby nagazines, and one of my jobs is helping manage their (very small) Google AdWords campaign.

    It’s been a fascinating learning experience, but for now I’ll just mention one significant (and one trivial) observation. When I started out, knowing nothing about AdWords strategies, I actually *did* click on ads – ads that promised free “teaser” content aimed at increasing expertise with AdWords. So, one (trivial) observation is that even a very ad-resistant user (me) will click on an ad if it is plausible that they might get connected with info they are actively seeking. But that’s not my main point.

    The most interesting feature of this content was that it was almost entirely *not* oriented toward advertisers with an actual product to sell. Almost all the advice was oriented toward people who want to “sell something on the Internet”. Much of it was geared toward selling downloadable content, and even where the orientation was toward a tangible product, it seemed to be targeting the advertiser whose business model was to sell that product via the Internet. A company such as ours, which has an existing non-Internet business model and wants to enhance visibility and sales via the Internet could get little value from the kind of material I saw. Paradigmatic of this orientation was the service that provided the advertiser tools to help them “choose a niche”. That is – they would advise you what business to go into based on what kind of search terms yield good clickthrough.

    This gave credibility to something I had suspected on other grounds anyway – that much if not all of the Internet advertising boom is based on speculative enterprises whose business model is to make money from the hopes and dreams of other speculative enterprises. Or, in other words, that the whole “dotcom bubble II” is being financed by the process of advertising venues making money from the burn through of startups’ venture capital loans. No way to prove this, probably – but it’s been a persistent suspicion of mine for a while now.

    Just a thought,
    -Steve

  • I generally pay no attention to most ads, but when I see a smoking hot chick with half her ass hanging out, I click it immediately… as long as my girlfriend isn’t around. I’ve never actually signed up for the site it went to though.

  • I’ve always thought that CPC was a lousy model and CPM fit a lot better with the traditional advertising model… these findings just support my ideas!

  • sam

    observing students (11-14) in my IT class and during free time, I noticed that many of the students clicked on ads in error as they were the most obvious item on screen (flashing and bouncing around as they all do. I haven’t had time to do a quantitive study on this, but anecdotal evidence points that there are many factors involved.

  • I sometimes comes across ads that honestly, just seem interesting so I click on them. I’m sure there are many instances where people don’t know they are clicking on ads and I’ve seen many sites try to incorporate ads on the in such a way that the ad looks like content on the site.

  • I sometimes comes across ads that honestly, just seem interesting so I click on them. I’m sure there are many instances where people don’t know they are clicking on ads and I’ve seen many sites try to incorporate ads on the in such a way that the ad looks like content on the site.

  • Who clicks? It might be NOBODY.
    If advertisers finally “get it”, they would stop bombarding us with their ads? I suspect they know the truth very well, – but will never stop it on their own!

    We simply need to SAY NO TO ADS!
    http://mini-news.com/2008/04/bye_bye_ads

  • Phoebus

    This is great news (apart from answering a question I’ve been wrecking my mind over since the beginning of the web). Can’t you just target those midwestern elderly ladies and rural trinket junkies and leave the rest of us alone? It could be as simple as detecting if I’m someone who likes to click on shit. The more I click on ads, the more ads I get. If I don’t click, I will eventually not get served any more ads and I can stop entering selectors into Adblock+ to unblock videos on a page. That’s actually one cookie I’d never delete from my computer, the cookie that identifies me as an ad luddite.

  • [...] has to fit into a fairly small space. Most people ignore you. The people that click on your ad are stupid, bored and poor. Or are your competitors and their agents. What’s good about it is that it’s so cheap that you [...]

  • may

    “Who clicks? It might be NOBODY.
    If advertisers finally “get it”, they would stop bombarding us with their ads? I suspect they know the truth very well, – but will never stop it on their own!

    We simply need to SAY NO TO ADS”

    give me more explain please :)

  • Gareth

    Hi Danah – I’ve stumbled across this great article a couple of times. It would be very interesting to do a follow-up piece, 4 years on. I’ve always been bewildered by how much stock people put in Internet advertising, and it would be interesting see how the Clicker Demographic has changed since you wrote it.

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