Few topics in online advertising generate more confusion and debate than view-through attribution, and the debate isn’t likely to end anytime soon.

Marketers today are typically including it as part of the overall measuement of their ad campaigns, but still have questions about how to measure its validity, what percentage impact on consumers it is really having and how it is overlapping with the other marketing channels.

In Chango’s newest white paper, “View Through Attribution Exposed: What last touch isn’t telling you”, we’ve tried to put the confusion to rest. Properly used, we believe view-through is a valid metric that can help brands understand the true value of their display campaigns. Let’s start with the basics.

View-Through Basics

Most of us see display ads every day, but few of us click on them. A study by comScore and Starcom MediaVest found that 84% percent of Internet users never click on an ad. But just because you didn’t click on an ad, doesn’t mean that ad didn’t enter your consciousness. Maybe later that day, or the next day, you found yourself visiting the site that was being promoted in the ad. That’s a view-through visit, or post-impression visit. If you performed an action while visiting the site, that would be a view-through conversion.  If you purchased a product while visiting the site, the revenue would be view-through revenue.

How can an advertiser know that a visitor to the site has already seen a display ad? Let’s take an example. Say you see an Amazon ad while reading The New York Times online. When the Amazon ad loads, it will drop a cookie on your computer’s browser. When you later navigate to Amazon on your own, Amazon can recognize the unique cookie generated by its ad.

The Case Against View-Through

The above description of the view-through metric probably doesn’t sound very controversial. So why all the fuss about view-throughs? The primary complaint is that view-throughs, unlike clicks, don’t provide a direct line between an ad impression and  a visit to a site.

As this line of thinking goes, the Internet was supposed to turn advertising from guesswork into a science. Every marketing dollar would be clearly accounted for because every user action could be tracked via clicks. View-throughs, while providing an indirect line from exposure to an ad to arrival at a site, still leave room for uncertainty. If a user sees an ad, and visits the site in question the next day, there’s a good chance the view-through drove the site visit. But, in most cases, it’s impossible to be certain that any given impression led to a visit. 

View-through skeptics can also point to the fact that it wasn’t long ago that many media owners were attempting to rig the system by buying millions of cheap impressions across the Web in order to drop as many cookies as possible.  Fortunately, this practice, known as “cookie stuffing,” has grown increasingly rare as the industry has matured and grown more transparent. 

And then there’s still the question of the view-through window, that is, how much time passes between the moment the ad is generated and the moment the user visits the site.

If a user sees an Amazon banner and then goes to Amazon.com three weeks later, should that count as a view-through? Unfortunately, when view-throughs were first adopted, the standard was to set the window to 30 days, a length of time that is far too long for most campaigns.

Based on our experience, the 30-day window continues to be used by most marketers today. We suspect that if the more skeptical brands and marketers recognized that the window can be adjusted all the way down to 24 hours, they might change their minds about the usefulness of the view-through metric.

The Arguments For

Despite the reasonable concerns expressed by the view-through skeptics, most marketers today use view-through measurement as part of their digital marketing programs. This probably doesn’t come as a huge surprise. After all, the majority of ad dollars are still spent offline, and offline advertising essentially relies on the view-through model.

When advertisers run offline campaigns, whether for TV, radio, print, mail, or outdoors, they rarely have definitive proof that customers are responding to their campaigns. Brands understand that these campaigns — whether for branding or driving a direct action — work because they correlate with increased conversions. It’s not a perfect science, but it works — and has worked for a very long time. 

While there are some ways to verify view-through in the offline world, such as with coupon redemption, unique codes and selective DMA targeting, most offline campaigns lack even these assurances. Online view-through, by contrast, is more direct and accountable than most offline campaigns, because, at the very least, brands can be confident that their ads have been seen. The key is in understanding the right way to measure the efficacy of the view-through campaign.

View-through proponents also point out that just because clicks can be counted doesn’t mean they should be counted. The vast majority of Internet users never click on an ad, and the number who do is dwindling by the year.  

Meanwhile, those who do click rarely convert. Clicking is generally random and doesn’t correlate to actual on-site conversions. In fact, view-throughs account for over 90 percent of site visitors and will be responsible for over 90% percent of page views when they get there. In other words, view-though turns out to be the more reliable metric in the end.

Another good reason to trust in online view-through measurements is that their effectiveness has been studied and is now well documented. By comparing samples of users who were exposed to a displayed ad to those who never saw it, marketers can see the incremental value from the exposure and determine the revenue such exposure accounts for.

Search data also offers plenty of evidence of the value of view-throughs. Countless studies have shown that individuals who are exposed to a brand’s display ads are much more likely to search for that brand and click on that brand’s search ad.

Though the effect can’t be directly measured, there’s good reason to think that display ads can make a big difference in in-store sales as well. According to one comScore study, 82% of online ad campaigns led to an average lift of 22% in CPG brand sales in retail stores. 

The Verdict

Counterintuitive though it might seem, the action of a click is irrelevant in display media. Views-throughs might not provide the perfectly efficient advertising model we all hoped for as the industry developed, but the model has worked well offline since the birth of advertising. And the online one works even better, both because we know the user has been exposed to the ad and because there are a wide-range of studies that demonstrate the correlation between online view-throughs and visits, search traffic, and revenue.

As with most things in life, the key to recognizing the value of view-throughs lies in choosing the right tools and using them properly. Fortunately, we now have plenty of tools and the days of arbitrarily assigning 30-day view-through windows will hopefully soon be gone. A

midst all the numbers, there’s another point worth remembering when you think about view-throughs. Sometimes it’s okay to use your gut in addition to your analytical mind. After all, if the view-through model had no value, there wouldn’t be an advertising industry today.