Who clicks on Ads?

danah boyd asks the question that’s been on my mind since (at least) the Futures of Entertainment confernce panel on metrics and measurement: Who Clicks on Ads?

Advertising is the bread and butter of the web, yet most of my friends claim that they never click on ads, typically using a peacock tone that signals their pride in being ad-averse. The geekier amongst them go out of their way to run Mozilla scripts to scrape ads away, bemoaning the presence of consumer culture. Yet, companies increasingly rely on ad revenue to turn a profit and, while clicking on ads ?may? be declining, it certainly hasn’t gone away. This raises a critical question: Who are the people that click on ads?

She points out that many of the answers at this point are heavily anecdotal – the kind of assumed “middle America” we often project when we need to explain some mass behavior in which we don’t participate. What she finds, in what little research is available, is perhaps surprising:

I cannot find any research on who clicks on social network site ads (does anyone know of any???), but based on what I’ve seen qualitatively, my hypothesis would be that heavy ad clickers are:

* More representative of lower income households than the average user.
* Less educated than the average user (or from less-educated environments in the case of minors).
* More likely to live outside of the major metro regions.
* More likely to be using SNSs to meet new people than the average user (who is more likely to be using SNSs to maintain connections).

In other words, much to my chagrin, I suspect that heavy ad clickers in social network sites and other social media are more likely to trend lower in both economic and social capital than the average user. Unfortunately, I don’t have the data to test these hypotheses at all.

It’s a fascinating question given how much of the energy of the current set of web applications is fueled by ad dollars. What are all those ad buyers paying for, and how effective is that market?

Are ad buyers paying for click-through tracking the demographics of the audience they get this way, as compared to the audiences they reach through print media?

Is the reality that the relatively disenfranchised online (to sum up the four bullets danah points to above) are less discriminating with their attention, and give their attention away more cheaply?

Does this mean that the clicks of the great unwashed online (pardon the image) pay for the web using experience of the urban elite adblock using digerati?

If advertising is like taxes – an annoying fee we try to avoid at all costs, while acknowledging reluctantly that someone has to pay it in order for us to get what we want (see what’s love got to do with it?) – are online ads essentially a regressive tax, costing the most to those who can least afford it?


  1. These are all really good questions. I’m thinking about my browsing habits, and I can think of two instances where I follow an advertising link.

    The first is when I click on paid results for a Google search. In that instance, the match has to be very close to what I am searching for. And secondly is when I see a print/tv ad with a URL and the advertising has me sufficiently interested. Also, I usually don’t remember the link unless I have a computer nearby, so that is a pre-condition.

    My speculation is that the entire interactive ad industry has to change to be more effective. I believe we will go through a period where the quants will do more data mining and analysis of interactive numbers. I think the following phase will be a mutation of the industry to be more effective. I think we will discover new marketing techniques that dovetail better with consumption habits, and new industries will be born.

  2. my limited experience with media buyers at several of the top agencies tells me that the much needed innovation in this industry is not going to come from the existing supply chain. brand marketers and their media buying counterparts within the agencies are held captive by the cpm. innovation will come from new media entrepreneurs and the quants. there are lots of exciting new models out there and hopefully the adoption cycles are shorter than previous internet cycles, but there’re out there.

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