In a year of sweeping change in online advertising, a decision by CBS MarketWatch earlier this month to de-emphasize the click-through as a central metric is causing debate about how the medium should be measured, and whether the demand for click-through reporting is slowly giving way to other methods of measuring online media.
Even as various constituencies weigh in, it's clear that CBS MarketWatch probably won't be the last site to attempt the changeover. According to Don Marshall, a spokesman for Washington- post. Newsweek Interactive, "We strongly support the goal of de-emphasizing click-throughs as the measure of success." The Washington Post Co. e-subsidiary hasn't yet taken click-throughs off its standard reports, but it is among the growing ranks of online publishers, and some advertisers, that are putting focus on other measures.
The recently formed Online Publishers Alliance, which includes both CBS MarketWatch and the Washington Post interactive unit as members, came out in support of the move as part of a concerted effort to move the discussion away from click-throughs. If that was the goal of CBS MarketWatch's announcement, it's certainly worked.
"I was going to take these click-throughs off my reports so that my team would take a more consultative approach with our clients," explained Scot McLernon, executive VP-sales at MarketWatch.com. The move came as MarketWatch, 34% owned by Viacom's CBS, struggles with the Web ad slump. Its first-quarter ad revenue fell 41% to $5.2 million vs. a year earlier.
If the obvious question is what measurement should replace click-throughs no obvious answer emerges. While the over-arching mission of Web publishers these days is to build measurements around client needs, some in the industry tout the brand-awareness possibilities of the medium while others focus on measurements that get to the heart of directresponse: conversion of prospects to customers.
MarketWatch's Mr. McLernon is among those who are particularly fascinated with online branding since many products that advertise on the site, such as Anheuser-Busch Cos.' Budweiser, don't have a real online sales goal. "What the hell does Gillette need with a Right-Guard Web site?" he said.
Mr. McLernon has plenty of supporters. Enliven, the Waltham, Mass.-based rich media company, is conducting a study with research firm Dynamic Logic to find measurements that correspond to ways in which other media is measured. According to Enliven's interim CEO, Scott Kliger, the two companies are "confident" the study will show that such measures as view time, for instance, can be a proxy for measuring awareness. Mr. Kliger, who calls click-throughs "a lousy measure of success from day one," said the debate has shifted to, "Are their metrics that you can measure that are valuable, and if so, what are they?"
The click-through lost any traction it had long ago. According to Nielsen/ NetRatings, click-through rates declined from 1.35% to 0.36% from May 1998 to June 2001. Though the rate has been basically flat for months, the overall downward trend started when the medium's novelty began to wear off.
Perhaps it seems odd that some people who represent advertisers are falling largely in line with the anti-click-through camp, even though the smart money right now could be in parlaying dismal click-through rates into cheap online buys.
Sharon Katz, VP-director of media at Modem Media, estimates that about 60% or 70% of her clients, which include CSFB Direct and Delta Air Lines, pay attention to how their buys translate into conversion, although they still pay some attention to click-throughs.
But it's not entirely sunny skies for other forms of measurement. ABCi, the interactive unit of the Audit Bureau of Circulations, has raised concerns about publishers seemingly altering the terms of online measurement to meet their own needs. "It makes me suspicious," said Dick Bennett, senior VP of auditing for ABCi.
Even if Web sites choose not to report click-through data, advertisers won't be shut out from it. Rishad Tobaccowala, exec VP at Starcom MediaVest Group, pointed out that even if Web publishers stop routinely offering such statistics, advertisers will get the data from third-party ad servers anyway.
The Bcom3 Group media executive said that even though click-throughs are not a great measure, advertisers may still pay them some mind. He said, "Let us decide if it's meaningless."