Surprise! Online ads work like magazine ads

August 6, 2012: 9:15 AM ET

Sometimes. New studies show it is possible that advertisers have been over-emphasizing Web metrics like click-through rates.

FORTUNE -- After years thinking of online advertising as qualitatively different from regular advertising, could it be that it often works similarly to print advertising?

Possibly, if the results of a new study are to be believed. Analytics firm RapidBlue has determined that Google (GOOG) AdWords campaigns tend to increase visits to retail stores. The company, which places sensors in shops to anonymously monitor customer behavior, studied about 4,800 shoppers in Helsinki. The study showed AdWords campaigns increase "both brick-and-mortar retail [visits] and visitor dwell times by double-digit figures," the firm says.

MORE: Online, in-store: Merge, retail, merge!

By itself, the study doesn't prove much (it's basically a marketing tool for RapidBlue's sensor product), but it adds to a growing pile of evidence that "research online/purchase offline" ("ROPO," marketers call it) is a real phenomenon, and that advertisers can take big advantage of it. This means that click-through rates, or counts of completed transactions, are perhaps less important metrics than had been thought, at least for brick-and-mortar retailers.

A study earlier this year by Boston Consulting found that consumers in the G-20 countries spent about $1.3 trillion on goods in 2010 via "ROPO" shopping.

If the results of the RapidBlue study are accurate, they "could upend the way the online advertising industry traditionally tracks costs and measures return on investment," writes John Koetsier at VentureBeat. That might be overstating the case, but it's possible that thinking of the Internet as being sort of the same as, say, a magazine might prove useful to some retailers.

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