Viewability wars as digital transitions

As agencies and publishers butt heads over metrics, the industry is inching towards trading viewability as a currency.

Advertisers, clients and buyers often find themselves in a complex debate over how many and how much of their ads have been seen. Achieving viewability is one of the most challenging constraints in the search for transparency and accuracy in media online. Digital provides plenty of opportunities to target consumers, but understanding just how much advertising is actually reaching its targeted audience remains elusive.

“Everyone wants 100% viewability,” says Veronica Holmes, SVP at Zenith Optimedia. “The challenge is that we can’t have it.”

Scientifically speaking, scoring 100% viewability just isn’t possible. What is, though, is a shift towards an acceptable standard of measurement online. The conversation has already begun for  a change in mentality around viewability. It’s not a metric but a currency, argue industry members, and should be traded in a marketplace where you get what you pay for.

“Ideally, the digital media industry in Canada would set for itself a goal where measurement, currency and billing deal with viewabiltiy and fraud,” says Chris Williams, consultant and former president of IAB Canada.

Viewability wars are an organic outcome of the fast-moving synergy between content and digital technology. Every medium has been through a struggle when identifying fair practices for advertising. It happened with TV too, and the deliberations around accountable pricing resulted in GRP ratings, which – while not an exact measure of ad reach – became an acceptable standard. The internet, too, will arrive at a standard of some acceptability.

So what is the hold up? The digital space is simply more challenging. Competing technologies – and hundreds of them – mean there are new measurement opportunities springing up every day. There are Media Rating Council (MRC)-accredited ad-centric technologies and those that are site-centric, and still others that are user-centric. They use differing metrics to provide insight about consumer behaviour and advertising value but their figures don’t match and the results mean publishers, advertisers and agencies are often at odds when drawing up bills and evaluating ad campaigns.

The spoils of the internet war, with its constant search for precision targeting, include a greed for perfection, something that media watchdogs warn against. In developing the right guidelines to push the industry towards unity, the MRC is trying to create an acceptable minimum standard, which is the defined as establishing the viewer’s “opportunity to see” an ad.

Last week, George Ivie, the ED and CEO of the MRC, opined in a piece in Media Daily News that the industry must be on board to lower its expectations and help develop a standard similar to other forms of media: “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.”

A recent Google ad study on Canada showed that 54% of desktop ads get seen, while more than 80% are seen on tablet and mobile. The study listed a range of issues that impacted those results, including ad size (the larger, the better), ad positioning and sites with high-viewability stats. In a traded marketplace, those options would be priced according to what a client is willing to pay, and what a publisher is able to provide on its site.

Until then, companies are taking their own initiative. Some media companies have developed internal standards for accountability in viewability.”We follow GroupM’s standards in the U.S., which are basically more stringent and more aggressive than IAB and the MRC,” says Erin Rahn, investment digital director at MediaCom Canada. The company aims for 100% viewability for any amount of time, significantly higher than the December 2014 IAB guidelines that suggested 50% of an ad must be in view for at least one second to be counted as seen, with 70% as the campaign threshold. GroupM works with MRC-accredited verification partners, MOAT Analytics, Integral Ad Science and Double Verify to ensure that there are limited debates on billings.

“We’re going to look for the best solution possible understanding that there is no perfect solution in the industry right now,” says Rahn.

There are basic challenges to overcome first. “Not all sites are 100% measurable,” says Williams.” you end up with a percentage that is measurable and a percentage that is viewable.” Unmeasured impressions have value but since no assumptions can be made about their viewability, there is the added complexity of evaluating ad spend. Since it’s not clear whether they have been seen or not, buyers could purchase them at a lower price.

Historically – and it’s not very long ago – there wasn’t much of a fight between delivered ads and viewed ads. In fact, no such terminology existed, and you paid for a certain number of ads to be delivered during certain times and hoped that it would result in building your brand. There were no battles between buyers and publishers over billings, and no ad tech companies providing discrepant numbers.

The early culprit – and hero to some – of this current crisis was RealVu, a tech company that introduced the idea of better buying opportunities using a geometric approach.  Its technology identified that a large proportion of ads popping up online – were being paid for in hard cash – without being viewed. And so began the big war on viewability.

And why not? While total ad spend in Canada did not increase substantially in 2014 according to an IAB Canada’s annual advertising revenue report, going up by 0.4% to $11.263 billion, the internet took home the largest chunk of revenue with $3.5 billion of that total, throwing TV off its perch.  It’s no surprise then that the issue of viewability is eating up so much of current talk time around regulation and monetization with industry analysts predicting that ad spend in 2014 either reached or passed $4 billion.

Part of the complication in understanding viewability is the transition of consumer behaviour from desktop to mobile. There isn’t enough information out there to understand just how people interact with digital media and how their behaviours change as they adapt to new technologies.

“[The MRC] guidelines are just to use display standards and guidelines. They are doing studies to see mobile behaviours,” says Rahn. “People scroll faster and swipe differently on mobiles and they want to see how that affects viewability.”

In May, the MRC spread its watchdog net over mobile accountability as well, announcing that guidelines that will be rolled out over the year to avoid all-out war between publishers and agencies over measurement of mobile ad impressions. But setting the agenda for 2015 and working to improve regulation of this space is important as more internet traffic shifts to mobile.

Tech companies, too, are trying to come up with solutions since none of them are as yet accredited by the MRC. Does that mean that the company will just over-serve ads to meet the 100% that they have been contracted to serve, or has technology advanced to reach that elusive figure? Earlier this month, Juice Mobile announced that its technology platforms can now offer 100% viewabilty for both mobile and in-app.

So what would a viewability currency look like if it existed? Publishers and advertisers would define their own currencies, as the MRC suggests. Williams suggests that a not-for profit could be tasked with defining and managing a tech stack that delivers that currency, and trades it.

Of course, viewability does not necessarily translate to sales. After all, the much sought-after 100% viewability is pegged to measured impressions, and is as yet an unachievable target. Ad click-through rates average at 0.1%. But brands have many reasons for presenting themselves, not always linked to direct sales but to brand visibility, and promotion. That brings us back to viewability, has the ad been seen at all? And if the numbers indicate that it has, was it a human or a roving bot?


We will discuss the issue of roving bots and spider nets in the second part of this series on viewability.

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