by: danah boyd
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?
A few years back, I asked this question to someone who worked in the world of web ads and I received a snarky (and condescending) answer: middle America. Over the years, I've read all sorts of speculations about search engine ads suggesting that people click on ads:
- Because they don't know that they're ads.
- Because they are perceived to be of greater quality than the actual search results (for example, in searches for travel).
- When they're searching for something that they want to purchase (intent to buy = desire to get to merchants quickly).
- When they're bored.
- When they think that they might win something or get something for free.
Over the summer, Dave Morgan (AOL Global Advertising Strategy) blogged about a study that they did to investigate who clicks on ads:
What did we learn? A lot. We learned that most people do not click on ads, and those that do are by no means representative of Web users at large.
Ninety-nine percent of Web users do not click on ads on a monthly basis. Of the 1% that do, most only click once a month. Less than two tenths of one percent click more often. That tiny percentage makes up the vast majority of banner ad clicks.
Who are these "heavy clickers"? They are predominantly female, indexing at a rate almost double the male population. They are older. They are predominantly Midwesterners, with some concentrations in Mid-Atlantic States and in New England. What kinds of content do they like to view when they are on the Web? Not surprisingly, they look at sweepstakes far more than any other kind of content. Yes, these are the same people that tend to open direct mail and love to talk to telemarketers.
Social media services like social network sites are not designed around the audience that Morgan suggests is the core of clickers, yet these too rely on advertising. I have a sneaking suspicion that a tiny percentage of MySpace/Facebook/etc. users make up the bulk of the revenue of these sites, just as with the sites that Morgan addresses. 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. (Does anyone? Are there any studies on class dynamics and ad clicking?)
Of course, while the ad world is obsessed with clicks because they can measure those, ad receptivity is more than just clicks. While people dream of adding clicks to TV, TV ads have been tremendously successful without the clicking option. Brand recognition, for example, is an acceptable outcome from the POV of many marketers. But the web lets us measure clicks so advertisers tend to care about clicks.
I am not an advertiser and I'm not invested in making better ads. Instead, by raising this topic, I'm curious whether or not web marketing is capitalizing on a niche group and, if so, what the societal implications of this might be? If my hypothesis were true, what would it mean if marketing is profiting primarily off of those who are economically and socially struggling? How do we feel about this philosophically, ethically, and professionally? Would we feel proud of living off of a business model that targets the poor?
Of course, my hypothesis may be wrong. Advertisers have historically flocked to the sites that draw richer, more educated, more urban populations. (As has media coverage.) They have to be doing this for a reason, right? Websites have historically tried to demonstrate that their users are such "ideal" consumers. Yet, I can't help but wonder if these "ideal" consumers are really the people who buy most of the goods being advertised. (I've always been fascinated by how poorer American families tend to have immense amounts of stuff while rich American families pride themselves on minimizing quantity and maximizing quality of material goods.)
I should note that consumer culture has historically capitalized on poorer populations, long before the web. Studies of consumer culture have shown how American identity has been constructed through consumption over the last century and how, not surprisingly, those who have a stronger need/desire to prove their American identity buy into the consumer culture.
While studies of consumer culture go back decades, I'm having a hard time surfacing what is known about the culture of web advertising. Who is being targeted? Who is responding? Why are they responding? What are the implications?
You might be wondering why am I raising such a web-centric issue on the Shift6 blog. Mobile advertising is primarily growing out of the web culture. It may not be about clicks, but the idea of user responses builds on that. As advertising becomes central to every interactive technology in our lives, I think it's important to step back and question who is being targeted, how, and with what consequence. Thus, as we are thinking about what it might mean to live in a world where mobile phone advertising is accepted, we must also concern ourselves with the implications of this.
(Note: it's easy to read this from an anti-capitalist POV, but this should instead be read from the POV of a conscientious capitalist.)