As far as metaphors go, the notion of “buying time” has become a little ironic -- and some might say, quite prophetic -- for Madison Avenue. In its most common use, the term simply means to keep something going beyond its functional capacity. In the ad industry, of course, it means something else: to buy time on media that consumers are spending their time with. But the way media-buying has historically worked, the term has actually been a misnomer. Advertisers and agencies have never really bought time. They have only bought proxies for moments in time when they assumed consumers might look at their ads, considered their offers and be wowed by the awesomeness of their big creative ideas.
Serious media researchers and strategic planners have always understood this, and they even have a term to describe what has really been going on. Instead of buying actual consumer time, they say the ad industry has been buying “opportunities to see.”
Take a TV commercial as an example. When an advertiser “buys TV time,” they are actually only buying the opportunity to run an ad for a duration of time -- usually 30 seconds -- when viewers may be present. The commercial usually appears randomly within a “pod” with other commercials, and although the ads may be guaranteed audience ratings estimates, the ads are not actually being credited for people looking at them, just having the opportunity to be exposed to them.
Brian Monahan may have explained the problem best a few years ago while keynoting a MediaPost event. Monahan -- now vice president-marketing at Walmart.com -- was then head of Interpublic’s Mediabrands’ Magna Global unit and he was presenting some data on the impact digital video recorders were having on TV commercial exposure, when he turned to the audience and said: “The greatest threat to TV ads is not the DVR. It’s people turning their heads.”
Monahan understood one of the most fundamental truths behind the fallacy of buying media time: Advertisers never actually own it; they just rent opportunities to try and capture it.
The issue is not just a television advertising problem. It’s a problem for almost every form of advertising, even one that was purported to be Madison Avenue’s most accountable: online media. To borrow Monahan’s point, just because an ad was served to a consumer’s browser doesn’t mean it was actually seen. Consumers could be turning their heads, or even worse, the ads may not even show up on their screen when their heads are pointing at them.
Putting aside so-called “bot fraud” -- fake, non-human audience traffic created by machines -- the issue of online ad viewability has become one of the most vexing ones in recent years, as advertisers began to realize that just because an ad was served doesn’t mean it was actually viewable on a consumer’s screen. Unlike television, where ads are at least present on the screen at the time an advertiser paid for them, online ads frequently are served on parts of a Web page that a user’s browser never even scrolls to. To deal with that dilemma, industry watchdog the Media Rating Council conducted audits of leading online ad detection firms and developed industry standard definitions for what constitutes a “viewable” ad impression online: basically, it’s one second for a static display ad and two seconds for an online video ad.
The standard doesn’t mean those ads were actually seen, it just means enough of the ads were present on the screen long enough to meet an industry standard definition for an opportunity to be seen.
The problem for online media is even worse, because there are an array of other technologies and user-controlled experiences that could also mitigate an ad actually being seen. Never mind the fact that online users frequently are not exactly in the kind of “lean-forward” mode that TV viewers are when they’re watching a singular frame of content on their screens -- online users can also effectively turn their browser's heads by utilizing software known as “ad blockers.”
No one knows the exact magnitude of online ad blocking, but some recent studies have put it as high as 25% of all ads served to users’ browsers.
Vivek Shah, chairman of the Interactive Advertising Bureau and CEO of Ziff Davis, doesn’t think it’s quite that high, but he does believe it is high enough to represent a serious online industry threat. Using Ziff Davis’ own experience, and noting that the publishers’ tech-savvy users are probably among the most likely to adopt ad-blocking software, Shah estimates it is in the “double digits” percentages of all ads served.
Shah says that’s not a problem for online advertisers because the ads only get credited as being served by online ad servers when they actually “render” on the user’s browser, making ad-blocking the online equivalent of “breakage” in retail. But it’s still a big problem for the industry -- because it’s likely, given technological trends, that consumers will gain more control over the ads that are served to them, not less.
Aside from ad blockers, cookie deletion software, and other threats to online ad serving and targeting, consumers are simply becoming more aware of the volume of advertising being served to them, and the scientific ways the ad industry is using their own behavioral data to target them.
“There is absolutely a backlash,” Katie Meier, who oversees cultural design at Mediabrands’ Initiative unit, wrote recently in one of her “Sideswipes” columns about the Office of Creative Research’s “Floodwatch” online ad vizualization tool. While she says the backlash is most pronounced among techies and the “cultural elite,” it's something that ad pros need to keep an eye on.
The incessant torrent of ads flooding consumers’ screens is not new. In 1975, J. Walter Thompson did a study that estimates the average consumer was exposed to 500 brand impressions each day. Currently, Nielsen estimates it’s about 5,000, but looking at the OCR’s “Floodwatch” may make that seem conservative to some.
During a recent briefing with Wall Street analysts, Dentsu Aegis’s Nigel Morris summed the dilemma up this way: “We’ve moved from an era of scarcity to an era of ubiquity.”
The scarcity and ubiquity Morris was referring to are the media opportunities Madison Avenue has historically had to present an ad message to a consumer. Morris may have been being diplomatic, because the best word to describe the current flood of ad exposure may not be ubiquity, it may be “over-abundance” -- and the real threat to advertising may not be technology so much as it is the fact that people aren’t just turning their heads, but are actually tuning out of advertising altogether.
As big a threat as that may seem to the ad business, some innovative players see it as a new opportunity and are developing models that go well beyond Madison Avenue’s historic “opportunity to see” approach, coming up with ways to guarantee that consumers actually see what they pay for.
“The traditional advertising model is based on reach/frequency, but the impression has not been actual reach. It has been an impression or potential reach,” says Joe Marchese, the founder and CEO of True [X], one of the companies that has been trying to wean Madison Avenue off its impressions dependency. In its place, he says, advertisers have to adopt models based on the actual delivery of the audience they are trying to reach, including how long they reach them for. And he has been willing to guarantee them that.
If he can’t prove that consumers were actually present during the minimum duration that True [X]’s ads guaranteed them -- usually 30 seconds -- advertisers don’t pay for them. Typically, Marchese says, advertisers get more than the minimum time they were guaranteed because consumers actually engaged with and spent more time with their ads.
The reason Marchese can make that guarantee is because of the method he has developed to engage consumers. First it starts with a direct consumer value proposition -- that the ad will provide some form of premium value the consumer might otherwise have to pay for in some way, such as premium content, premium time on video games, or free access to public wifi.
“It’s part of how we’re starting to think about engagement,” says Ray Romero, vice president-digital media activation and media-buying giant Horizon Media.
Romero says Horizon has been an early adopter of models like True [X] and believes that over time, they will scale to replace much of the conventional “impressions”-based media buys that have historically represented the bulk of advertising.
“When you look at the industry’s standard metrics, like the gross rating point, they are just impressions,” he explains, adding: “What we need to do is figure out how to put the value of [audience] engagement on top of those metrics.”
So far, he believes True [X] has been cracking that code. One of the methods Horizon has been using enables consumers to avoid “timing out,” or being interrupted during their free Pandora music-listening sessions. In exchange for viewing a True [X] ad, Pandora users can avoid the interruption.
That value exchange is enough to get your foot in the consumer’s door, so to speak. What True [X] does next is to develop a creative ad format guaranteed to engage them. Often it takes the form of an interactive survey or questionnaire, which has been proven to work, but Marchese has also added a creative services component to True [X] to help advertisers and agencies come up with new ways of engaging consumers for their brands once they have their attention. Over time, he says, he would like agencies to ultimately figure out how to do that themselves, and that True [X] is providing creative support mainly to prime the pumps.
What Horizon’s Romero likes about it is that True [X] has developed “standardized” units that work for a wide array of advertisers and brands in an equally wide range of consumer experiences. More importantly, he says, it's a straightforward value exchange, because the consumer is receiving an explicit benefit from a brand that is subsidizing a part of their media experience that they would otherwise have to pay for or be interrupted during.
In some ways, Romero says, True [X] can be thought of as an ad network, in the sense that it is aggregating ad opportunities across disparate audiences experiencing disparate content on different publishers’ sites -- but he says it’s more, because it is a network based on guarantees that consumers are engaged with ads. In other words, it’s an “attention network.”
True [X] is not alone. A wide range of digital media platforms are developing time-based guarantee models.
WebSpectator is taking a research methodology-based approach, utilizing an MRC-accredited method that can tell how long consumers are engaging with ads and charging advertisers based on guaranteed time intervals. Andre Parreira, CEO of WebSpectator, says the firm has mainly been working with publishers in Portuguese-speaking markets -- Brazil and Portugal -- but is ramping up its English-language publisher relationships fast, including partnerships to sell “time-spent” inventory on Yahoo and Upworthy.
In WebSpectator’s model, advertisers can buy guaranteed time spent in front of an ad in increments of “time blocks” or 20-seconds each.
But as Walmart’s Monahan previously noted, having consumers in front of the screen your ads appear on is not the same as having them actually see them. To guarantee that, you would have to measure what they are actually looking at. And now there is a way to do even that.
Sticky, a company that been using webcam and mobile phone cameras to conduct affordable eye-tracking research for major brands to test their ads, is looking into applying the same technology as a proof-of-performance metric that can also guarantee consumers looked at advertising. Utilizing state-of-the-art eye-tracking technology, Sticky can measure not just whether a consumer had their eyes on a screen when an ad appeared, but exactly what consumers' eyes were fixated on, and for how long they were fixated on it.
The company has even developed a new metric for measuring exactly that, says Ephraim Bander, chief revenue officer of Sticky. “We call it the 'seen metric'."
To illustrate the power of that metric vs. Madison Avenue’s historic opportunity-to-see standard, we asked Sticky to conduct an analysis of an online ad format that is often assumed to have a high degree of user attention to it: pre-roll video completions.
Because ad servers can detect that a pre-roll video ad was actually completed, above-the-fold and in view of the user before they are about to view other video content they explicitly choose to watch, the assumption is that they are actually paying attention to the pre-roll ads.
Using its technology, Sticky excluded pre-roll video ads that weren’t looked at at all, and focused on more than 40 30-second pre-roll ads that met the MRC’s definition of “viewable,” meaning that they were above-the-fold for at least two seconds of the time they ran.
“The add was seen by 100% of the people for an average of 16.1 seconds out of 30 seconds,” says Bander, noting that means about 50% of the ads were actually seen.
Or to update the ad industry’s oft-used John Wanamaker quote, now Madison Avenue can measure which half of its ads are not being seen too.
Image provided courtesy of Shutterstock.