Setting The Industry's Sights On Viewability

For many people in the digital advertising industry, 2014 is turning into "the year of viewability." This has certainly been a hot topic of discussion among ANA members for many months. However, it’s important to understand that tackling viewability measurement for digital ads is just one step in the journey toward the ultimate goal: true cross-platform planning, buying and evaluating of marketing and media. 

I’ve heard many industry veterans express the opinion that if we are ever to achieve this goal, digital advertising measurement needs to be "brought into line" with traditional advertising. But this is really only half the challenge. The offline ad world can learn a lot from the strides we have made in digital measurement, and it’s something the industry has to tackle as a whole. 

One of the reasons the industry has continued to debate viewability, rather than moving on to focus on the broader goal of cross-platform measurement, is that too much of the debate has falsely commingled the issues of viewability and fraud. This is causing damaging confusion in the industry that limits marketers from investing in digital media. So I can’t stress it enough: A non-viewable ad doesn’t equal a fraudulent ad.



Viewability addresses the issue of whether ads have the opportunity to be seen. 3MS and the MRC, the industry body that audits and accredits media measurement services, developed guidelines for viewable impressions, launched earlier this year, that state that 50 percent of pixels (whether video or display) must be in the viewable portion of an Internet browser for a specific minimum amount of time: 1 continuous second for display ads, and 2 continuous seconds for video ads. These thresholds are supported by a substantial amount of research, some of which existed prior to the development of the concept of a viewable impression, and other research that was developed specifically in conjunction with the viewable impression initiative. 

Crucially, these guidelines are benchmarks and should be used as just one ingredient in the ad campaign measurement mix. The intention of viewability is to define whether a consumer even had the chance to see the ad, not whether they engaged with it or took action as a result of seeing it. The 3MS PSA campaign brings the issue to life in an ad featuring an artist who has a strong message. Without risking a punchline reveal, I’ll tell you this much: the artist knows what his message is, but nobody else has the opportunity to see it. Watch the video in full to see for yourself. 

In the same way, if an ad doesn’t load properly, or sits on a part of the page that’s never reached by the viewer, is impossible to see. It is non-viewable. 

The issue of Fraud is quite different, involving the automation of bots and other features that distort a campaign’s effectiveness by making it seem as if more people have engaged with ads than actually have. This not only costs marketers billions of dollars, but also impedes efforts to truly understand where and how their message is resonating. However, the issues involved are different. Fraud is about the non-human traffic that skews performance metrics. Viewability is about the opportunity to see

The MRC recently launched a project to strengthen benchmarks for the filtration and disclosure of invalid non-human traffic. Although both the issues of viewability and fraud are being addressed, they are being tackled separately, as they are separate matters.

The viewable impression is the key to making digital media measurement comparable to that of legacy media. In television, radio, and print, the consumer has the opportunity to see the ad. Television commercials are rendered on screens. Radio ads are broadcast. This has not always been the case with digital media. Foundational industry technologies only measured if an ad was served, not how fully it rendered on the screen or how long it was present. The viewable impression and the technological innovations that support it, such as IAB SafeFrame, answer this need.

Now that the digital sector is moving toward adopting viewable impressions and establishing a Gross Rating Point (GRP), I’m left asking what the traditional ad industry can learn from these efforts. Yes, TV viewers have the opportunity to see an ad when it airs, and if it doesn’t air, the advertiser doesn’t pay for it. But we can only measure the average audience for only those minutes within the program which contain commercials. TV ads aren’t measured discretely on TV, as digital ads can be discretely measured online. We’re seeing moves toward measuring individual commercial ratings -- it’s achievable on the horizon -- but we’re nowhere near there yet. 

The impact of digital ad viewability is therefore far broader than the online ad ecosystem. Certainly, it will mean productivity improvements for marketers. Due to technology limitations, marketers were previously paying billions of dollars for ads that had no potential of being seen. The transaction processes between advertisers and publishers will also take on a more standard approach that, over the course of time, will establish the basis for a well-understood digital GRP, allowing us to further simplify digital measurement complexities.

As marketers, it is our responsibility to understand where our budgets are going. The move to a viewable impression is a key development that will help us do just that. In many ways, viewability as a core metric for digital sets it up to be even more accountable than TV. Digital is leading the way. By doing this first, we’re forcing the entire media industry to actually measure per ad unit. This is huge – and all the more reason for this year to be the year of viewability.

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