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The Click is a Lie: Lessons from The Interruption Curve


We all track performance of our digital campaigns. In fact, we’re swimming in tracking data telling us about clicks, conversions, channel performance and more. This is how we do marketing in the 21st century.

The problem is that our data is lying to us.

It’s a lie of omission, and it’s not the fault of the tracking tools we use. But before you throw out your data, let’s talk about what’s going on. The problem isn’t the data, it’s that users interact with different types of advertising in radically different ways that our tools were not built to report on.

Our Dependence On Click Tracking

Most of us started in this business using clicks to track search campaigns. This is where many of the click-based performance numbers we use today come from.

We became very used to the idea of a click-through and a path that went from Impression to Click to Engagement.


After all, clicks are often how we pay for the media we buy, so they feel like a requirement. As digital advertising has evolved, this idea of a click as the central, mandatory precursor to engagement became fixed in our tools, reports and methodologies for running digital campaigns.

“The problem is that our data is lying to us.”

What we may have forgotten is that search is different from almost all other forms of digital media.

How Search Is Different

In search, there is no level of interruption. Ads are presented directly in response to user demand — to an explicit expression of interest. Search has no comparison in other media.

But as digital has expanded into ever more media options, our click-centric, search-centric tools are breaking down.

Truth is, the click isn’t central or mandatory in many types of media. For example, it’s not uncommon for people who engage as a result of viewing display ads to never click on an ad. In retargeting campaigns, view-through conversions almost always significantly outnumber click-based conversions, which shows that clicks are not a requirement.


For much of digital media, the click is a lie in that it tells only a fraction of the story. Yet almost all of our tools are based solely on click-based conversions.

The good news is that these differing modes of engagement are somewhat predictable along what I call The Interruption Curve.

Interruption Curve

Simply stated, The Interruption Curve shows that the higher the level of interruption the digital advertising has on whatever the user is doing at the time, the more likely users are to engage out of channel.

How Interruption Affects Engagement

Let’s dig in here.

Search has no level of interruption, so there are extremely high levels of in-channel engagement. Not 100%, as evaluation cycles, cross-device effects and other complexities reduce the total a bit. But in general, you can optimize a search campaign to click-based conversions and have good outcomes.

Other media have radically differing levels of interruption, from mildly interruptive display or social advertising to highly interruptive video or interstitial ads. Higher levels of interruption don’t mean the form of advertising is bad or ineffective; it just means that the user is less inclined to drop what they are doing to click on an ad.

Highly interruptive ads produce most of their value out of channel.

Where does this value show up? Most of the time, it will appear as Direct (No Referrer) traffic and Brand traffic, either paid or unpaid.

Think about it. You are just about to launch a video when an ad comes up. It intrigues you — but not as much as the video you sat down to watch, so you file it away for later review.

When you have the time and inclination to look into it (possibly after repetitive exposure to the ad), you do a search on the brand name, or you enter a URL, and you go directly to the site.

The fact is, there are many, many, MANY highly profitable campaigns that are being shut down because the value migrated out of channel. And the main reason the value migrated out of channel was the Interruption Curve.

The Inadequacy Of Most Reporting Tools

Look at your reporting and media-buying tools. What happens if the value is showing up in another channel? In most cases, we will attribute the value to the wrong source.

That also means we will devalue the initial channel‘s contribution. If the initial channel is paid media sold in an auction (and most digital media is auction-based), it means we’ll likely lower the bid or turn off the campaign as a result.

“Highly interruptive ads produce most of their value out of channel.”

Value migration and its effect on auction bids are among the most misunderstood effects of digital marketing, and they keep marketers from fully utilizing highly interruptive forms of marketing. Value leaking into Brand and Direct channels is causing us as marketers to pull back on media that are perfectly profitable, often to the point where we are uncompetitive in the auctions, or we drop the media entirely.

What can you do about this? Well, you can start with three simple steps:

  1. Plug The Value Leak. Instead of forcing the user into a click-based path of engagement, embrace their preference for engaging on their own terms. This will mean using your click data as directional data and offsetting bids or targets based on the value you see migrating to Brand or Direct channels. Where possible, use impression-to-conversion tracking or view-through metrics to help understand non-click engagement and value creation.
  2. Measure Campaign Effectiveness Holistically. Look at Direct and Brand when evaluating Display, or Video, or Retargeting. Understanding what is going on outside of your own bucket pays off. Find ways to measure cause and effect across channels.
  3. Embrace The Out-Of-Channel Engagement Path. Take steps to structure highly interruptive media in ways that foster engagement on the user’s terms. It is amazing how many display ads fail to include the site URL, or how often the home page is forgotten as the primary landing page for highly interruptive media. Reinforcing your domain in your interruptive ads and creating a consistent message from ad to home page to user-selected engagement path will increase the value created by your non-search digital advertising.

Who knows, your best ad might be one that never gets a click!

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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