Here's why nobody wants to click on a display ad

There is a number that keeps me awake at night: 0.02%. If you told someone that they had a 0.02% chance of something happening, they would probably write it off as hugely unlikely. Not worth considering. But this little number is, in fact, a very big number for our industry. Because this the average click through rate for display-based online advertising. It is a small number but it tells us big things about the customers our clients spend billions of dollars trying to attract. And what it is telling us is this – put simply, nobody wants to click on a display ad.

So why is this number so low? What, if anything, is the industry getting wrong? It is time to play detective and consider some possible reasons.

Firstly, let’s consider creativity. Is it that we are simply unable to devise an online advert compelling enough to click on? Well we have all seen our fair share of appalling ads, but given responsive advertising has been with us since the days of cutting out a coupon, we have to assume that by now advertisers know how to incite an action. So if it is not creativity, is it that we are not targeting the ads at the right people? Highly unlikely.

Our industry is getting better at this every day to the verge of being creepy; we have never been better equipped to segment and identify an audience by interests, behavior, category and context. So maybe it is just that our audience can’t see the ads – after all the issues surrounding visibility are well documented? Whilst this could be a factor, the evidence shows us that even the most standard display ads yield a low return. So just what else could it be? If we are developing engaging creative and ensuring it is prominently placed on a page to a qualified audience what are we missing to put us at 0.02%?

The answer is pretty simple. We often fail to consider the user journey.

Digital media has above all things provided the user with control. When electing to view a page, chances are that is exactly where they wish to be, and any strategy that seeks to have the user leave the place they wish to be is flawed. More importantly, it isn’t actually necessary.

Because digital advertising has become increasingly sophisticated in recent years and we now have a raft of advertising solutions which allow us to deliver a brand experience which does not require users to deviate from the path they’re on. All the best parts of a website can be inserted into a digital ad unit – interactive pre-roll, expanding display, mobile – and delivered to the user within the space, page and the journey they are on.

And we aren’t guessing that this is what the user wants because the numbers reflect it. At Exponential, we see our engagement units deliver attention rates of 4% and over. We see videos more likely to be completed; galleries explored and games played; and, perhaps most interestingly, much higher click through rates. All the things we are trying to drag users into our websites to enjoy can be delivered in a way that respects their online journey.

The user journey is not playing a large enough role in the planning of digital media, especially in display. Understanding the user journey – what they want from their time on a page, how they want to be delivered advertising and how they are likely to interact with it – is critical to the success of any campaign. And a 0.02% click through rate is telling us something we should take notice of.

One small shift in creative thinking and ad building solves myriad problems for advertisers. That shift is based around units which value engagement on the report card. With that, comes the push for more interesting, user-focused creative. The IAB describes engagement as “a spectrum of consumer advertising activities and experiences – cognitive, emotional, and physical – that will have a positive impact on a brand”. All this can be delivered to a customer without having to try to hijack them away from the online experience they’re having.

What is best for clients and brands is often what is best for users in the digital space – an experience that is rewarding, useful, and doesn’t interrupt the natural path they are on. And that doesn’t sound like a click through.

The writer is Tyler Greer is head of strategy, APAC, Exponential.