The development of a Viewable Impression standard represents a key interim step on the road to the goal of establishing an audience-based digital measurement currency that can facilitate an era of effective cross-platform measurement.
The Media Rating Council (MRC) has been involved in writing digital measurement guidelines in cooperation with other industry associations for over 10 years. These efforts began with setting guidelines for how to measure a digital ad impression (a “served” impression) in 2004 and thereafter expanded into measuring rich media, video, clicks, audience reach, gaming, ad verification and other topics.
These guidelines establish a common set of minimum requirements, foster accuracy and best practices, assist in deriving consistency in measurements and disclosures, and establish criteria for evaluation and, in some cases, accreditation or certification of measurement organizations.
The latest body of guideline work that the MRC has been pursuing relates to an industry effort called Making Measurement Make Sense (3MS), founded by the ANA, 4As and IAB. 3MS seeks to improve digital measurement and foster measurement that is more comparable to other media genres such as print and television and friendlier to brand marketers who seek to evaluate advertising effectiveness beyond simple measures of performance such as a click-through.
3MS established and announced a series of important principles including converting the current served impression currency to “viewable” impressions; establishing a digital currency based on specific audiences reached, not merely gross ad impressions; and determining interactivity metrics that matter for brand marketers so that marketers can better evaluate digital media’s contribution to brand building.
The 3MS organizations asked the MRC to assist in the task of turning these principles into marketplace realities. After much discussion internally among board members, the MRC agreed to do so.
The MRC has been working on many of the 3MS principles, but the most foundational was establishing the Viewable Impression. Other media is viewable (or audible, in the case of audio-based media) to qualify for measurement currency, and therefore digital display and video advertisements had to be established as viewable to be considered comparable. While MRC’s initial focus was on desktop digital environments, the development of a mobile Viewable Impression guideline will be initiated soon.
Opportunity-to-See (versus Branding or Engagement)
MRC has set a minimum standard for counting digital display and video ads as viewable in line with an "opportunity-to-see" philosophy. Essentially, this represents the earliest legitimate (viewable) counting moment for a digital advertisement. It also represents the moment when an ad impression will qualify for inclusion in the digital audience-based currency metric (likely a GRP).
This digital counting moment is analogous to the minimum amount of time an ad needs to be registered in measurement systems of other electronic media. For example, progress through a certain percentage of a video advertisement, or to the end of a commercial, is not a condition for inclusion in television ratings related to commercial minutes.
It is important to understand that the Viewable Impression guidelines are not intended to create metrics for a user's engagement with a display or video advertisement, or the minimum amount of time required to communicate a brand message.
As a result of an extensive process of research, direct input from a wide range of industry leaders, and pilot testing in production environments, and in concert with the opportunity-to-see philosophy noted above, MRC issued guidelines for viewable impression measurement that operationalized the parameters under which a digital ad would be considered viewable as 50% of the ad’s pixels in view for a minimum of one second for display ads, and two seconds for video ads.
Aside from the agreement of the many marketers, agencies, and media companies that were part of the 3MS development process, these parameters were supported by compelling empirical evidence. Pilot testing in the summer of 2012 showed that if an ad met the 50% pixel criterion for at least one second, in about 80 percent of the cases, it was 100% in view for that time; we would expect this figure to be even higher today, as publishers have made strides in optimizing their sites for viewability.
The time criteria were supported by past research on ad cognition, and, in the case of the video viewability two-second threshold, by extensive testing overseen by MRC. This research on video viewability studied the nature of user actions related to video ads (controlled for other factors), which reached statistically significant levels at a point between two and three seconds of the ad’s initiation.
Since user actions related to an ad pre-suppose the opportunity to see the ad, the conclusion was that two seconds represented an appropriate measure of when the minimum opportunity to see a video ad occurs.
It is likely that buyers and sellers will negotiate more demanding conditions that include additive criteria for viewable ads that represent engagement and/or serve to increase the likelihood that the viewer received the brand's message. These situations are dependent on factors such as creative design, the viewer’s persistence in remaining with the ad, the publisher's content around the ad, ad clutter, and the quality of the ad creative itself.
All of these elements are well beyond the scope of the Viewable Impression. They can be highly variable (based on the ad strategy, brand purpose, organization of the ad, ad message, etc.) and are significantly difficult to standardize. Creating a standard measurement for the effectiveness of a digital advertisement has never been the objective of the Viewable Impression guideline project. There is a future phase of 3MS that will work to establish those rules, but that project is yet to be executed.
Recently, a few industry practitioners have questioned whether the MRC’s “opportunity-to-see” minimum standard for viewable impressions is demanding enough. Some have proposed different, more demanding, criteria in order to ensure advertising messages are delivered. While this could be legitimate for individual campaign buy-sell negotiations, MRC's standard was not intended for this purpose.
The MRC strongly believes a single, common opportunity-to-see standard is critical for developing an audience currency and as a common foundational metric. Requiring that a display or video advertisement is viewable for substantially longer than the “opportunity-to-see” standard injects engagement attributes that – quite simply – are not present in minimum counting metrics requirements for other media.
Agencies, marketers and seller organizations can negotiate terms that they believe best represent their advertising or selling objectives in the free marketplace, but these should be represented as add-on requirements, not as the industry minimum measure of opportunity-to-see.
Reconciling Vendor Counts
A substantial number of vendors have come forward with measurement solutions for identifying and reporting Viewable Impressions. After completing the Viewable Impression guidelines document, and accrediting a critical mass of viewability measurement vendors, MRC has been engaged in a series of projects to reconcile counts of accredited vendors to each other using commonly tagged advertising campaigns. That last phase of work was recently initiated.
In general, the results obtained from reconciliation to-date show that differences in vendor counts have narrowed, but more work needs to be accomplished to complete this process. MRC has heard from several ad agency groups that their recent cross-vendor comparison results have been showing more consistent results in recent months, which is an encouraging sign.
Non-Viewable Impressions (versus Invalid Impressions)
Non-viewable impressions and the broader topic of invalid impressions, such as fraud, are two different issues. They may overlap in a few areas, but Viewable Impressions can still be invalid for other reasons, and solving for viewability does not eliminate invalid impressions or fraud. In August 2014, MRC initiated an industry project to greatly strengthen invalid traffic detection and filtration controls among accredited/certified measurers. This project is nearing completion.
Interestingly, MRC has seen significant differences in vendor capabilities for invalid traffic detection. This can be a significant cause of differences in viewable counts between vendors. Although Viewable Impressions and invalid traffic are independent priorities which both need diligence, it is clear that they interact in the overall assessments of campaign delivery and, ultimately, campaign effectiveness.
The MRC is committed to moving ahead with implementation of the 3MS principles and other important measurement priorities, such as stronger detection and filtration of invalid traffic. Viewable impressions represent the foundational change necessary in digital media to bring forward a comparable audience-based currency.
The MRC believes this work will serve the entire industry by enabling cross-media comparisons and more efficient media allocation. In the meantime, get involved. Become a member of MRC. Be active in these initiatives, and share your voice and move forward with us.
George Ivie is executive director and CEO of the Media Rating Council