A different view on viewability

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After reading Google’s report that 56 percent of digital ads marketers paid for never had a prayer of being seen by an actual consumer, one could hear a collective sigh of relief when the Media Rating Council announced a standard for measuring viewability.

It wasn’t perfect, but at least advertisers could rest assured that unless 50 percent of their ad was visible in the consumer’s browser for at least one full second, their budgets wouldn’t be hit. Everyone seemed to agree that viewability was a step in the right direction to making digital advertising work better.

Has viewability improved advertising? To be fair, it’s had its stumbles coming out of the gate, so let me rephrase the question: Does viewability have the potential to make digital advertising work better?

How we got here with viewability

When viewability first hit the scene, people from the ad network and media arbitrage community, along with those of us (me included) who have a history in dealing with large numbers of impressions, didn’t fret too much about the new standard.

Sure, it would take work to analyze sites, optimize pages to include a greater number of viewable ad units and test and implement measurement technology to report campaign stats to advertiser. Of course, these activities would jack up the cost of inventory, but surely that would give us the leeway to renegotiate price, right?

Wrong, said the powers that be at the MRC, Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), American Association of Advertising Agencies (4As) and Association of National Advertisers (ANA). We need more measurement, they said.

That need gave rise to a cottage industry encompassing 15+ viewability vendors and auditors (and, not surprisingly, a lot of fast money was made). Fast-forward to today: Viewability is a just one KPI among many, and measurement is negated to some degree.

But perhaps something was lost; maybe we forgot some other key ideas.

Viewability not living up to its promise?

Not too long ago, I sat down with Mark Torrance, CTO at Rocket Fuel, to discuss this very topic. He raised some troubling issues around viewability that are worth examining. Specifically, he isn’t convinced that viewability is living up to its promise as a particularly useful metric, and, more disconcertingly, he thinks it doesn’t make economic sense. Combine those two facts, and it’s not moving the industry forward.

Difficult to measure

So, what’s his beef with viewability? At its core, viewability is designed to assuage fears by offering up concrete proof that an ad was in view. The problem, per Torrance, is that when it comes right down to it, viewability is difficult to measure, especially in a mobile environment, and in the context of a third-party ad ecosystem.

The traditional methodologies for measuring viewability rely on JavaScript, which isn’t suited for a mobile environment. And while JavaScript is fine for a publisher that is in complete control of a page, a great deal of inventory today is sold via third-party ad exchanges and networks, where that control is lost. So how can one have faith in a measurement tool that isn’t very good at measuring stuff?

Drives up costs

Moreover, Torrance believes that viewability, by driving up the cost of inventory, makes it nearly impossible to recognize its value in media spend. He says that viewability has become so important to marketers that they’re focusing their ad spend on sites that offer, say, more than 70 percent viewability rates.

It’s not uncommon to see a programmatic campaign with a whitelist of such sites. But that leads to increased competition, which ultimately drives prices higher. That’s great for publishers, but probably not what the marketers had in mind.

Proposal: accept lower viewability rates

Torrance believes that a better strategy for marketers may be to include in their media plans some impressions that are sometimes in view from other inventory sources, meaning those with less lofty viewability rates. If those ads turn out to be viewable, the marketer enjoys great impact at a lower cost, which will lower the cost-per-action and raise campaign ROI.

Accepting lower viewability rates as a buying criterion requires marketers to ask questions that have long been missing from the viewability discussion, such as: What’s more important to me, ensuring my ads are in view or the impact of those ads that are seen?

These are interesting questions, and they give rise to even more questions. And while his argument makes sense, does it defeat the purpose that viewability set out to accomplish in the first place? Torrance summed up the situation this way:

“Viewability is an important part of the shift to digital. It’s become necessary to give marketers results they can trust. That will be the challenge for measurement, agencies and advertisers, and it’s what we’re all looking to solve. Once results are more measurable, and we have a better understanding of cross-device, I believe we’ll reach a point where it’s possible to be much more confident.”

Is viewability serving the purpose for which it was intended?

Torrance’s argument is one that is certainly interesting and not without merit. Viewability, which seemed full of promise, especially for marketers seeking to drive campaign performance, isn’t living up to the hype.

The answer, five years later, is still open to debate, and it seems as if the IAB now questions the agency’s rigor, as Randall Rothenberg clearly states in this AdAge article piece.

So, what’s a person to think about the current state? That was a topic at last month’s ANA Masters of Marketing conference, and it’s a subject we’ll be tackling at our Brand Safety Summit this month as well. I’ll be sure to share any interesting insights and arguments that arise.

We haven’t given up on the standard, but we do have a long way to go to ensure it does make the digital advertising ecosystem better for everybody.


Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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