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What Makes People Click and Why It Doesn’t Matter for Display

What Makes People Click and Why It Doesn't Matter for Display

What makes people click on ads? It’s one of the most frequently asked questions in the digital marketing space, but when it comes to display, it’s the wrong question.

AdWords brought CPC pricing models to the forefront of the digital consciousness. But while clicks are often an accurate measure of effectiveness for search ads, when it comes to display, the click does not correlate well with ad effectiveness and is not the outcome you should be optimizing for. With display campaigns, clicks are rare, but that doesn’t mean the ads don’t work. Here is some insight into what does make people click, a deeper look at why it doesn’t matter for display, and some suggestions for outcomes to focus on in lieu of the click:

What Does Make People Click?

When it comes web design, getting people to click is key, and it’s all about trust, ease, and relevancy. Here are some tips on creating click-worthy websites from conversion optimization expert Tim Ash:

“[W]e know trust is very important if you want visitors to click, and this is rooted in humans’ fundamental need for safety/security and with our fear of loss. Also, relevance to your audience’s interests and perception of ease is directly related to motivational factors. [Ensure] that your buttons have clear call-to-actions so your visitors know what to do…[B]y making tasks more complicated…even the most motivated of your audience are going to leave your site to find another website…on which they can easily accomplish what they came to do.” –Tim Ash, CEO, SiteTuners

The advice mentioned above is largely applicable to banner design and should be taken into consideration even if you aren’t optimizing for clicks. Good banners build trust, establish relevancy, look clickable (even if you don’t anticipate clicks), and stand out from the page.

Why It Doesn’t Matter

“We don’t care about clicks because there is no relationship to sales for a brand marketer.” –Bob Arnold, Associate Director, Global Digital Strategy, Kellogg.

Even for direct response marketers, in the display world, clicks are no indicator of sales. Clicks are an easily measured outcome, and due largely to most marketers’ comfort with the AdWords model, CTR as a measure of success has been applied in areas where it is, frankly, not an accurate measure for success.  In more than one study, comScore has found that clicks have “virtually zero correlation with total conversions.”  All the reliable evidence points to the fact that clicks simply don’t mean sales.

One key reason that clicks don’t correlate with conversions is that the majority of Internet users simply don’t click banner ads. Ever. No matter how effective your design is, how relevant your messaging, and how clear your call-to-action, there exists a significant number of people who just won’t click on your ads. But that doesn’t mean your ads won’t convince them to visit your website or make a purchase.

With retargeting in particular, most return visits come through direct visits or through search. But even in the absence of a click, a return visit can still be influenced by the retargeted ad. Another comScore study found that brands saw up to a 1046% increase in branded search, or users searching directly for the brand name, during retargeting campaigns. This massive increase in branded search is a clear sign that non-clickers were influenced by the retargeting campaign, but chose to use search engines to return to the brand’s website.  

What You Should Optimize For

Only measuring clicks undervalues display and can lead you to improperly optimize your campaigns. For example, retargeting could be driving a small handful of clicks while inspiring a significant portion of your users to type in your brand URL directly and make a purchase. If you weren’t measuring that lift, you might decrease your retargeting spend without realizing that retargeting is an ROI-positive channel that’s driving real revenue.

In Defense of the View-Through

There are a variety of attribution models you can use from the very complex to simple brand lift metrics like increases in site traffic. And while many marketers are skeptical of view-through conversions, or conversions occurring after an ad is viewed but not clicked, this measurement does give credit where credit is due, allowing you to optimize your campaigns armed with the right data. Just make sure your view-through window is sufficiently small—some providers want to attribute a conversion even if it’s been 30 days since the converted user last saw an ad. We typically recommend a view-through window of 24 hours, which is much less likely to overstate the effects of the ad.


When it comes to optimizing your campaigns, be wary of focusing on metrics that don’t matter. Forget about the click, and optimize for the outcomes that do matter.

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