Click-Only Attribution & The Death Of Common Sense

Back in May, I wrote a blog post documenting the top 10 alternatives to “Last Touch” attribution. Last touch is the common practice of awarding credit for an online conversion to the last advertising vendor to put an impression in front of a user before that user returns to a website and converts.

This methodology for awarding credit to a display vendor is very common, often manipulated and highly illogical. I wish I could say that the absence of common sense begins and ends with “last touch,” but, alas, it gets worse.

Very often, direct brand and agency contacts buying display media will make a certain statement that defies all reasonable logic; and, if you are a sales professional in the online display ecosystem, you’ve probably heard it plenty of times:

“I Don’t Believe In The View-Through”

A “view-through,” also referred to as a “post-impression” conversion, is when a consumer takes an action as a result of being shown a display ad, but does not click on the ad itself.

Unfortunately in 2013, I personally will speak with hundreds of media buying professionals and will encounter many individuals who claim they don’t believe a display ad influences an action if the ad is not clicked on. Loosely translated, there are thousands of professionals in the marketing industry who are saying they don’t believe human beings can be influenced to take an action as a result of something viewed with their eyes.

There have been studies dating back more than three years that have validated the view-through phenomenon. In fact, these studies have shown that display ads do more than create return visitors to your website who convert. Display ads also influence actions taken via other online channels such as search marketing and social media.

Display advertising helps create demand; search marketing and social media can help capture that demand.

You Might Believe In A View-Through If…

In the spirit of Jeff Foxworthy’s “you might be a redneck if,” here are some clues that you may actually believe people are influenced by what they see with their eyes:

  • You might believe in a view-through if you have ever put on make-up, combed your hair or cared about the clothes you wear to make an impression
  • You might believe in a view-through if you have ever read a description of a food item on a menu and subsequently decided to order or not order that food item
  • Your company might believe in a view-through conversion if they have ever spent one dollar placing their logo on a building, t-shirt or on any client-facing marketing piece
  • Your company might believe in a view-through conversion if they’ve ever spent one dollar on advertising outside of radio (hear-through) or coupons, since no offline advertising is click-based

“I Don’t Want To Pay for A View-Through”

So, the simple reality is that everyone believes in a view-through conversion. Many advertisers simply don’t want to pay for them and/or give a vendor credit for them. The reasons for this are many, and an educated buyer could address all of them if they were so inclined.

Here are three common reasons why a media buyer doesn’t want to give an online display campaign any post-impression conversion credit:

1. It’s just a good old fashioned purchasing tactic. If you knew you could purchase advertising from a vendor and only pay for, or give credit for, that which you could 100% tie back to the advertisement, wouldn’t you?

2. Another vendor, perhaps one that starts with a “G,” and rhymes with bugle, is taking credit for driving the traffic, even though a display ad drove the consumer to search in the first place. If you knew you were going to have to pay a vendor for conversions they did not influence — a vendor who you can’t really fire nor negotiate with — wouldn’t you force the other display ad vendors to give up their rightful claim on the conversion?

3. They simply can’t prove the conversion is the result of being influenced by the display ad, or if users were influenced by the ad alone. This is probably the most reasonable and logical explanation. But, in today’s world, A/B testing, multi-variant testing and affordable attribution measurement tools are abundant. It can be argued that advertisers who are not using these tools to validate the impact of impression-based conversions are simply choosing not to measure, and this goes back to reason number one. It’s a purchasing tactic.

Dangerous Consequences

In the end, I have concluded that it is OK if a media buyer wants to purchase display advertising on a cost-per-click (CPC) basis or some other performance-based pricing model.

However, if they are insisting that their ad buys be optimized and measured based exclusively on the actions of those who click on the ad, then they are playing a very dangerous game with their brand.

You see, once again, there are mountains of empirical evidence to suggest that relatively few online consumers account for a very high percentage of clicks. This isn’t new information and it has not really changed over the years despite improvements in ad personalization.

Further, Facebook recently wrote about its new tracking method called the “view tag” that looks beyond clicks. Initial results show 87% of conversions come from impressions, not clicks. The only evidence to the contrary is whitepapers and studies funded by companies pushing their CPC pricing models and using their own data to validate their position.

So, those who click versus those who take some other action are the few. They exhibit minority behavior when compared to those who browse directly, perform a search, or navigate to a social media page seeking further discounts, for example.

It is dangerous to build your business around the behavior of the outliers. Purple Fur CoatsCan you imagine a retail store learning that 10% of their clientele are interested in purple fur coats and ignoring completely what is actually being purchased by the 90% who show no interest in purple or coats?

When a media buyer judges an online display vendor-based exclusively on click-based conversions they are, in fact, asking for the campaign to be shaped around behavior that is fundamentally different than 90% of their audience exhibits.

Time and time again, direct response display campaigns with a conversion pixel placed have shown that some of the highest converting networks, exchanges and publishers in the campaign may be those with the lowest number of clicks.

So, the logic is pretty simple. In order to drive more click conversions, you need to drive more clicks. In order to drive more clicks, you may be optimizing away from some of the highest converting inventory in the campaign.

The question is, “how will the CEO feel when he knows his or her marketing dollars are being directed in a manner that subsequently results in loss of online sales that were possible because the campaign did not react to the behavior of the majority?”

The Solution Is Not A Mystery

There are going to be media buyers for content-based publishers and e-commerce websites who may read this and have very strong opinions to the contrary. In fact, they may have had first-hand success in click-only attribution models that are worth singing from the mountaintops.

My call-to-action is simply that moving forward, we should agree to prove it, embrace attribution measurement technology, and engage in some A/B tests that seem reasonable and transparent in methodology.

If the data support that optimizing to clicks will drive more conversions, then I will be first in line on the click bandwagon. The solution, however, is that direct response display buys should be about incremental conversions with or without the click.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Display Advertising | Display Advertising | Display Advertising Column


About The Author: is the Chief Revenue Officer for, a company quickly being recognized as the authority in search retargeting. Since the mid 90’s James has been involved in leading companies who are paving new paths in digital space.

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  • MarYanna Sophia

    Hi, first of all great article. second, could you please rewrite for me this sentence: direct brand and agency contacts buying display media …, is a little confusing for me and I will like to analyze the article complete and understand it fully. Thanks.

  • John Stewart

    Great read. I appreciate your use of humor and the infographic to illustrate your point.

  • Vantage Local

    Thank you for making this point so well.

  • Marc Poirier

    Hi James. I think the problem goes both ways. Taking 100% of the credit for a conversion based on an ad impression is even more ridiculous than taking 100% of the credit for a click. Giving ad impressions the proper weight is key in solving this conundrum.

  • Mark @ Make Them Click

    The problem with all this “industry” opinion is that it conveniently forgets what the client wants. The client wants a result. They want to see money flowing into their bank form an ad campaign. If they can’t see a direct correlation, they won’t keep advertising regardless of what new buzzword industry types come up with.

    It’s a pretty simple concept that seems to elude most agencies.

  • Kenneth Karl Nielsen

    My opinion as a media buyer is that salesmen often try to “oversell” the value og view through conversion. Ex. taking credit for ALL sales by people, who have seen the creatives. I stil work with finding the correct/best attribution for bannerview, and it seems to me, that this is probably the solution,

  • Chris Elwell


  • GS1981

    Agree wholeheartedly with the main thrust of this article, but I’m not sure the solution is conversion attribution modelling. In fact I’d go as far as saying those tools are simply another ‘emperor’s clothes’ solution designed to keep marketing money with the companies sitting at the end of the funnel, rather than being spent on the most effective solutions for driving purchase decisions.
    Generally speaking, attribution tools assign a higher contribution percentage the closer an advertising event – click or impression – is to the conversion event (i.e. most credit goes to the event in last place). But this creates yet another disproportionate perception of performance – surely credit should be given for events appearing in the right place, rather than in the last place? If someone has already decided to buy a product due to various influences, they would often purchase via search – so why should the final search event get more conversion credit than the media owner who targeted the right user with the right message at the right time, having much greater influence on the conversion? Why should display vendors who simply place banners behind the search links people visit after they have already decided to buy, get more credit than the display media who influenced the prior decision to buy? End of funnel solutions do steer a conversion to a particular vendor (do I buy the DVD from shop A or B), thus offering clear value when fighting competitors for ‘fallen apples’, but they do not create the conversion in the first place (I want to buy the DVD), yet under attribution modelling or viewthrough / clickthrough models the last-event display & search firms are always paid or credited more.

    It may not appeal to marketers to accept that online display media is not used by audiences as a search, navigation or buying tool (despite it overwhelmingly being planned, bought and measured as if it were), as it is simply the same ‘subliminal’ beast as TV – nothing more and nothing less. It doesn’t have the tangible benefit of print, where users save or revisit ads they saw earlier – like TV, once user consumption progresses away from banner exposure, they can’t go back to it. They consume the ad in passing. It may not be video, but it’s still only visible for a matter of seconds. And guess what – if someone does remember an ad and subsequently investigates, search gets the credit!

    Arguably, for sales campaigns we should at most just be measuring the number of contributions made (not conversions, contributions). Not weighted conversions, not last event conversions, not path position; just the number of conversions a media delivered, weighted against the cost or volume of inventory used by that media (within a relevant conversion window). Then if you’re using a CPA / CPC display media, measure their performance against search (the media they’re competing with) rather than other display media (who they’re set up to take money from, by claiming to do the same job more effectively, when really they’re doing a different job wiht the same tools).

    It is really very easy to measure display media in a manner which reflects the job it is meant to do, rather than measuring it’s effectiveness at something it should not be expected to do. Display media is not and has never been broken – the process of attributing value to display media is where the problem lies.


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