Commentary

Programmatic Is The Arch Villain In Digital Display's 50:50 Viewability Gamble

The stats are in and yet again, it's not looking good for digital display. It seems the only way to introduce any talk of viewability in the UK is to make the joke that the old axiom is true. With digital display advertising you really do run the risk of wasting half your budget. 

The latest report from Meetrics for fourth-quarter 2016 suggests that viewability was just the wrong side of a 50:50 split. Just 49% of banner ads served in the quarter meet the IAB and MRC threshhold of half an ad's pixels being viewable for a second. The same time last year -- fourth-quarter 2015 -- viewability stood at 54%. Not great, but noticeably better than tipping under the 50% threshold. Speaking of which, it's worth remembering that Meetrics reckons viewability hit an all-time low in second-quarter 2016 of just 47%.

The main conclusion from the figures is that although viewability seems to have stabilised in that a percentage rate that was going down has now roughly flatlined, you can't walk away from the numbers with any other conclusion that each quarterly rate is a notch down from the corresponding figure a year before. Viewability is getting worse, not better. And it's still way worse in the UK that leading digital markets in the EU.

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In Germany and France, viewability stands at 58% and 57%, respectively, and in Austria it's a whopping 68%. Again, these aren't exactly standout performances. Imagine those countries' marketers saying to clients they have managed to improve on a one-in-two chance of having their ad being put in a spot where it stands a chance of being seen. Yet it does underscore the difference.

When I talk with media executives they are always at pains to point out that the UK suffers from being a mobile-first leader and driving format innovation. Mobile brings us long pages that we are less likely to scroll down and innovation brings us impressive takeovers that scream at us in the background, behind the content we have clicked to see. With a massive ad being so large, and extending to the bottom of the aforementioned long page, it's far harder to ensure that 50% of it is seen. 

There is undoubtedly some truth in that. Pages are longer, ads have become bigger and can sometimes occupy the entire background of these new elongated pages. That's only part of the story. The Meetrics researchers hit the nail on the head when they reveal that the big problem isn't bespoke, creative background takeovers. It's mainly attributable to poorly performing sites still being bought by programmatic platforms. Strike off the sites that underperform, that constantly place ads where they can't be seen and the problem won't go away entirely, but it will be alleviated somewhat.

The trendy answer is that digital display is a victim of its own success but I' would suggest there's a good old-fashioned media hygiene argument here too. Get programmatic blacklists drawn up and viewability should increase, regardless of how many super-sized elongated takeovers you're running.

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