Being Seen: Chasing Viewability

The theme of ad viewability came up again and again at last week’s OMMA RTB event in New York, After a decade and a half of Web advertising, -- and in retrospect -- it seems downright daft that the problem of viewable impressions was not front and center long ago. Now that it is top of mind for many buyers and publishers, the consensus seems to be that proving viewability will be part of the reporting, verification and accountability process in short order. Not surprisingly, products are emerging to address this concern.

It seems to me that viewable impressions are also an opportunity for the display industry to take more seriously a host of other issues about ad impact. Time spent with an ad, page design and clutter are all related issues.  I raised some of these issues with Oren Netzer, CEO, DoubleVerify, which just released its own AdView product that addresses viewability from a number of perspectives. According to the company, one of the leading ad verification platforms that is already evaluating ads on pages, only 54% of the impressions served by 26 media sellers analyzed met the IAB’s standards of a viewable impression. And the IAB sets a pretty low bar, with viewable meaning  50% of the ad for a second. In its study of a select group of advertisers and media, DoubleVerify found that if we used the one second standard, then the best performing media seller had a 83% ad visibility rate, while the worst had an 18% rate. As the time spent standard rises to 3 seconds or more, then only 43% of ads were considered viewable.

There has been a lot of discussion thus far about how changing to a viewable impressions standard over a served impression standard can change radically basic metrics like click-through rates. C3 reported earlier this year that the effectiveness of an ad may be grossly underreported if viewability isn’t taken into account.  In essence the figurative references to the purported “invisibility” of banner ads to many users may be literal. You can’t click what you don’t see. When a viewable impressions only are measured, CTRs can be appreciably higher.

Netzer points out that brand-lift evaluations are also affected. Most post-campaign branding studies assume that the ad-exposed group of people were going to pages where the ad was visible. By culling the surveyed group, “it could reduce the number of people who saw the ads by 30%,” he says. “And then the campaign may have performed better than we thought it did.” Moving to viewable impressions could have a positive effect on many aspects of the online ad ecosystem. “This has been a disservice to the publishers and to the industry,” he argues. “It means advertising may be working better than we thought.”

While publishers who have been tossing as much ad inventory at a page in order to monetize every pixel may demur from measuring viewability, Netzer maintains that the standard will help most sellers in the end. Planning tools that compared sites across a number of different parameters can add another differentiation, rate of viewability. But that metric can include more than a flat rate of ads view and also account for time spent with viewable ads. Hi company is measuring beyond the IAB standard into 3, 5, 15 and 30 second increments. In comparing sites, buyers can set their expectations and placements against the typical page hang times of users of a site or section. After all, one second of viewing time isn’t enough for some of the animated and rich media creative to cycle through their show.  

Measuring for viewability is not a light tech lift, Netzer says. “We have to identify the exact location of the ad on the page and then identify the size of the browser window, scrolling, to calculate if the ad is in a viewable area. And if multiple tabs are open, we have to take focus into consideration.”

Like all aspects of digital advertising, viewability measurement requires an achingly complex process to get at what should be basic accountability. But let’s hope it also moves publishers and advertisers to think harder about other basics like the look and feel of a page. A tech-driven medium in which all interaction occurred within a geeky browser interface left us with a Web with a terrible design aesthetic. The primacy of efficiency and utility over experience, the ability to measure revenue per page, led to Web sites that had all the visual appeal of NASCAR stock cars.

In my mind, there is a very good reason why so many of us have moved our content consumption to mobile smartphones and tablets. The experience is less cluttered and in many cases more enjoyable and engaging. These platforms remind everyone that design and experience matters, that whimsy, engagement and entertainment are all important. They remind us that Web as we have known it was built for business machines, experienced on desktops in offices first and foremost, and lived in an interface designed by engineers. The Web has always been incredibly efficient, useful, informative, deep, flexible and quick. Honestly, it has never been much fun.     

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