A Lesson For Digital Advertisers And Publishers, Courtesy Of Taylor Swift

aryehlebeauThe Sell-Sider” is a column written by the sell side of the digital media community.

Today’s column is written by Aryeh Lebeau, executive vice president of client operations at Remedy Health Media.

A year ago, a track off of Taylor Swift’s “1989” album topped the Canadian music charts. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, but what made this story so unusual was that the song, “Track 3,” was nothing more than eight seconds of static. It managed to outsell some of her megahits on the chart at the time. This struck me as a little extreme even for T-Swizzle fans – it took her song “Blank Space” to a new level.

Earlier this year, I stumbled across the digital advertising equivalent of the “Track 3” snafu. I had seen some blank ad slots on one of my company’s websites and just chalked it up to ad blocking or random glitches. As the days passed, on a lark I decided to click on the white space. To my surprise, I was taken to one of our advertiser’s websites. Fearing that we had mistrafficked the ad, I scrambled to pull reporting. Lo and behold, there was an ad creative in rotation aptly titled “White Ad.gif.”

Why this creative had ever been produced by the agency, let alone trafficked, is beyond me. The truly stunning development though was that the performance on the unit was off the charts. A .68% click-through rate for the month blew away every other placement on that site. It seems that seeing nothing at all draws more attention than anything that advertising brains can devise.

Is all the effort that goes into building a creative campaign – the color palette, the photo shoots, the slogans, the copywriting, the focus groups, the A/B testing – meaningless? Could the development work that goes into fancy rich-media expandable units be ditched for a simple expanse of glorious white space? Maybe the mystery of the unknown draws more curiosity and delivers more audience than anything concrete.

While there is certainly a moral to the Aesopian fable of “White Ad.gif,” it’s not that ad creative doesn’t matter. Instead, I think it is an illustration of what many advertisers have learned over the years: Click-through rate amounts to very little. Digital ad targeting and measurement have evolved tremendously over the years, from the golden days for publishers when impression delivery alone was the measure of success to today’s hyperfocused, needle-in-a-haystack expectations.

In an era when an advertiser may be looking to bring that one 38-year-old guy from Podunk, Ark., with an affinity for Turkish coffee to a site, click-through rate has been rendered relatively obsolete. There is so much more to ad performance than top-line metrics and sheer volume. Deeper back-end metrics tell the story of whether visitors are truly engaged with the brand once delivered.

There are plenty of parents of 12-year-old girls who would take the blissful silence of “Track 3” over hearing “We Are Never Getting Back Together” for the 3,000th time. Similarly, I’m sure many of our site visitors relished the white space on the page in place of the usual barrage of flashing ads. Each magically managed to produce in the way of downloads or click-throughs despite a complete lack of substance, but that doesn’t mean Taylor Swift or ad agencies should throw in the creative towel just yet.

For every “White Ad.gif” that stumbles its way to greatness, there’s a “Shake It Off” that earns its rightful place in the Madison Avenue digital hall of fame, delivering both front-end and back-end success.

Follow Remedy Health Media (@HealthCentral) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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  1. Aaron Kaliner

    While it is sad to hear yet again that a blank ad outperforms all other ads (on a CTR basis), I am very glad that the author focuses on “deeper back-end metrics” as the only legit way to measure the effectiveness of online advertising.

    Nowadays,savvy clients always run test-vs-control ad campaigns, measuring incremental change in behavior on downstream purchase rates vs PSA ads.

    In fact, I would hope that the author’s “blank ad” is actually the “control” in a large multi-site test to prove that targeted online display ads have a clear and measurable positive downstream revenue impact.

    Side note: very nice “click bait” headline 🙂

  2. What makes you think humans clicked on the whitespace ad? .68% CTR is almost certainly driven by bots.

  3. Good article Aryeh. It would be interesting to see what actions those consumers took downstream on the site. Did actual engagement occur or was it just bots or accidental clicks. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I believe the reason this had such a high CTR (assuming no bot fraud) is that it is different than what consumers are used to seeing. This is the goal of creative, to stand out. In this case, “Standing Out” meant a blank white page. Brilliant. I agree that ads should be judged on deeper metrics. However, the creative of and ad (assuming its not interactive) should be to draw attention and click. What happens after the click is up to the site and its content. The creative should, however, give the clicker a general idea of what they are clicking. But if the targeting is focused, most people clicking should be part of the target audience.