The 10 Biggest Lies In Online Advertising

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The other day I tweeted about the most common come-on in online advertising, that integration of some new behavioural/widget/toolbar/bullshit service would be as simple as “one line of Javascript.” And it’s true, that you can implement a service that will deplete your business model, annoy your users, and destroy your user experience with just one line of Javascript.With that in mind, I thought it was worth enumerating the 10 biggest lies in Online Advertising. And not even with a slideshow — think of all the lost pageviews!

1. “Just One Line of Javascript”

Yes, with one line of javascript you can integrate virtually anything into your site. That’s not a benefit, it’s a threat. Just because it starts with <script src= doesn’t make it OK. Hey, just integrate this: <script src=””>. Seriously dude, the script can a) capture all the data of your search referrers; b) cookie users for targeting based on your site’s profile; c) correlate those users to your referral URL, thereby profiling your site so it can be bought at a discount; d) read everything on your site, including confidential user data; e) add latency to your user experience; f) insert other javascript from other sources into your page; etc; etc. Think before you cut-and-paste.

2. Clicks and Clickthroughs Matter

This is only a lie to the extent that intelligent people benefit by continuing to believe it. Studies have shown that most people don’t click; that those who do are less desirable consumers; that most clicks are accidental; and that in any case clicks are very rare. Yet, clients and media planners continue to evaluate online advertising based on click-through-rates. There’s still a place for clicks on pure direct response offers or specific calls to action, but they aren’t a viable currency for generally evaluating online ads and should stop being treated as such.

3. Reach = cookies

Reach is defined as the number of people reached by an advertising campaign or media property. Cookies can measure the number of browsers exposed to an advertising campaign. Browser<>Person. Unless you have a mapping (panel, statistical, or otherwise) such that f(browser)=people then you can’t calculate reach. And just grossing up based on deleted cookies doesn’t qualify.

4. Television Dollars are Coming

Online advertising is a great medium that delivers quantifiable results to both brand and direct response advertisers. People are also using the Internet more every year, and watching less television. Therefore, Online Advertising will eventually take TV Dollars. No. This argument has more holes than Nielsen ratings. Online has done an amazing job growing at the expense of print, direct response, classified, and other media, and yet TV is bigger than ever. Until Online has the sight, sound, and motion of TV and ads are watched for more than a split second before the user browses away, it isn’t a viable alternative spending channel for TV dollars. 

5. Display Needs to be More Like Search

Yes, search is incredible efficient, and measurable, and offers huge value to advertisers. And display is a pain in the arse, and fragmented, and difficult. But fixing display doesn’t mean making it more like search, unless by that you mean giving Google total control of the ecosystem. Oh whoops, that already happened. No, seriously, the great benefit and drawback to search is that every ad can be represented in 95 characters. In display, the whole point is to use creativity, colour, context, and emotion to cut through the clutter. So while the mechanisms of buying and transacting display may become more like search, the creative itself will resist efforts at automation and that’s a positive.

6. Privacy is an Important Issue

Privacy in online advertising is an issue, to the extent that everyone is scared shitless that the government will do something stupid. But it’s a total non-issue in reality. There’s not a single documented case of a real-world harm coming from privacy-related abuses in online advertising. Fraud is an issue. Spam is an issue. Malware is an issue. Search results and social media contain a ton of privacy land mines. But the ability to know that an anonymous cookied browser represents is an “in-market car buyer” who recently visited has yet to enter the realm of crimes against humanity.

7. “Faxing IOs”

This is my favourite since I think I personally used this lie hundreds of times. No one actually “faxes IOs” anymore, yet any vendor in the space who is talking up their crazy scheme to automate the workflow of the ecosystem likes to trot out this fallacy as a way of making us feel bad. We don’t fax IOs, we email PDFs of IOs.

8. Creative Burn-Out/Frequency Matters

This isn’t so much a lie as a rule of thumb that is outdated. Every agency out there makes sure to manage the frequency of exposure of their creative to avoid burn out. (Note, frequency is based on cookies, which are unreliable). The exact frequency is debatable, but is usually somewhere between 5 and 10 per cookie. Let’s do some maths. In the TV world, an advertiser might try to limit frequency to 5 per household (of course, they can’t actually cap since it is broadcast). Five TV commercials = 150 seconds of ad exposure. The average web page is viewed for, I don’t know, maybe 5 seconds? So if you wanted the same exposure for web ads you would need a frequency of 30! And that assumes that a non-interactive, non-audio playing banner ad has the same effect per second of exposure as a TV ad blaring in an interruptive context. Personally, I think the ideal frequency for banner ads is near infinity.

9. Viewthrough Conversions with a 30-Day Lookback

A viewthrough conversion is when a user (really a cookie) buys something on your website and you give credit to the last impression seen by that user, within the “lookback window.” A lookback window is an amount of time in which you will give credit to that impression. The default lookback window most agencies use is 30 days. So if you saw a banner ad a month ago for a product you bought today, that banner can be given credit for influencing your purchase. Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense intuitively, and, to my knowledge, has no empirical research to support. The correct viewthrough lookback window is probably less than 2 hours.

10. Mac Users Don’t Matter

No one ever says that Mac users don’t matter. But they don’t. You know why? Because most Mac users use the default browser, Safari, to browse the web, and Safari, by default, does not allow any third-party cookies. So if you’re a) using cookies for reach/frequency calculations; b) using cookies to monitor and attribute conversions; c) using cookies to target users on your inventory; or d) using cookies to bid on impressions on exchanges, then you’re out of luck. Oh, also, Mac users are more educated and affluent.

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