Ad Viewability Contention Rages On

Chris CrumAdvertising

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If there's one hot topic in online advertising in 2015, it's viewability. It's causing a lot of disagreements between advertisers and publishers, and it's the subject of a great deal of confusion and chaos throughout the industry.

What are your thoughts on the subject? What needs to be done? How do publishers need to adapt? Should advertisers be more patient? Discuss in the comments.

Google and Facebook have both been talking about viewability efforts of late. Google recently rolled out viewability reporting across its ad platforms. Facebook talked last week about what viewed impressions mean for its own advertisers.

The company says it measures ad impressions the moment the ad enters the screen, and if it doesn't enter the screen, it doesn't count it as an impression. Soon it will apply this to organic content from businesses as well. It also says it's working with the Media Rating Council (MRC) and a consortium of advertisers and agencies to develop "more robust standards" for viewable impressions.

"Our goal is to work with the MRC, our partners, and industry leaders around the world to help apply further standards for feed-based websites like Facebook, mobile media and new ad formats," the Facebook for Business team said.

“We’re working closely with Facebook and they’re doing compelling research around the viewable status and value of advertising of all types of impressions on their media, including those that quickly come in and out of view on a person’s screen. We will continue to collaborate and ensure that we consider the learning relevant to feed-based, mobile focused publishers in our viewable impression standard going forward," said MRC CEO George Ivie.

According to ClickZ, the MRC considers viewability to be specifically "50 percent of pixels of an ad unit remains viewable for a minimum of one second for display and 50 percent of pixels in view for a minimum of two seconds for video," which many find much too low.

Back in December, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) released its “State of Viewability Transaction 2015" report aimed at offering guidance on how to manage the “shift of digital media’s ‘audience currency’ to 100 percent viewability.”

It said 100% viewability measurement simply isn’t possible. Instead, it recommends 70% as the best threshold for buyers and sellers. 2015, it says, will be a “year of transition.”

Since the IAB's report, viewability has only become a more hotly debated topic. Advertisers are demanding more viewability while publishers struggle to deliver and maintain that advertisers are sometimes not seeing the big picture about the difficulty of meeting such demand, or in some cases even the validity of the data they're seeing.

Ad Age recently shared some demands by advertisers it had obtained from various publishers. Some demand 100% viewability. Others are more reasonable, but are still very firm in seeking "make-goods" for out of view impressions. Suffice it to say, this is being much more carefully looked at by all parties these days.

Last month, Mike Shields at The Wall Street Journal wrote that "the push for web ad viewability [is] proving to be a nightmare for publishers early on."

"In the near term, the issue has caused contentious negotiations and rocked how many big publishers manage and forecast inventory for 2015, which in turn effects how they project revenue for the year, top online ad executives say," he wrote. "Publishers say that while they have been out in front of the viewability issue, they are getting hit with reports from agencies and third parties claiming that significant chunks of their ad inventory are not viewable. That’s requiring these websites to deliver advertisers significant make-goods, or additional advertising to make up for deficiencies. Furthermore, properties ranging from AOL to Forbes are redesigning portions of their websites on the fly as a result,. In private conversations, many online publishers are bitter, and use harsh language to describe the current state of affairs."

In that article, he also notes that mobile and the wide variety of screen sizes can be a major issue when it comes to viewability. I couldn't help but notice a comment on the article from The Mobile Majority CEO Rob Emrich, who we just interviewed about Twitter's syndicated ads. Here's an excerpt from his WSJ comment:

There isn’t a simple solution for this problem, due to the complex and circuitous path by which mobile ads are built and trafficked. What’s more, the journey from creation to an actual viewed ad is perplexed by a number of moving parts managed and maintained by far too many vendors and commensurate associated fees. This drives up complexity and cost on top of media which hurts both publishers and buyers. For instance, to run any single large scale mobile campaign, a buyer would need somewhere between 4 and 10 vendors. At the very least, they would need vendors to manage strategy, creative technology, ad serving, bidding, targeting, data activation, measurement, reporting / BI and fraud detection. Every time there is a handoff, whether by computer or more often (still) by humans, of an ad from one vendor to another, there is a loss of data or at least some sort of compromise in quality. Sorting out accountability for final results becomes impossible because no one vendor can be blamed or held accountable. This leads to an opaque and broken marketplace that no one individual participant can fix.

Not only has this created an inefficient system, a distrust in the technology itself has emerged. This is because viewability reporting is just as chaotically layered as the building of an ad. 3rd party viewability vendors often produce inconsistent viewability reports originating from different sets of available data from different layers of the full ad technology stack. This in turn confuses buyers even more and creates a compounding loss of confidence.

Eric Wheeler, the CEO of 33Across and former Executive Director of Ogilvy Interactive North America, advises advertisers to work with viewability vendors to create verification tests and run A/B tests with ad units vs. standard IAB.

The IAB maintains that there are major issues with vendor reporting, however. At its annual leadership meeting earlier this month, new chairman David Morris reportedly "singled out" vendor reporting as a "key problem holding the industry back on viewable impressions." Ad Age reported:

Mr. Morris said that publishers often find substantial differences between vendors on the same line items. "Publishers need to demand that verification companies do a better job of delivering consistent and accurate data," he said. "To our agency partners, I say reducing the number of vendors you use will help us scale these solutions more quickly."

According to that same report, Morris "took pains to draw a line between" viewability and fraud. We recently looked at a report from Integral Ad Science, which explored ad viewability trends. It found that the viewability rate for publisher sourced ad inventory remained relatively unchanged at 52% during the fourth quarter, and that the level of ad fraud increased over the previous quarter, but still remained better than that of networks and exchanges.

Viewability for display impressions sourced from networks and exchanges, it found, increased from 36.7% in Q3 to 42.6% in Q4. It attributed this to more user attention and/or increased adoption of viewability optimization technology.

Video ads saw increased viewability, jumping nine percentage points to 39%.

“According to Integral’s Year End Survey results published last month, 57 percent of the industry transacted based on viewability in 2014, and even more so — 73 percent — plan to do so this year,” the firm said. “Additionally, 85 percent engaged in programmatic buying, which includes real-time bidding. These activities may have led to an increase in the adoption of viewability measurement technologies by networks and exchanges, as well as optimization of media toward viewability. Perhaps as a result, viewability for display inventory was 42.6 percent in Q4, up from 36.7 percent in Q3. Ad fraud experienced a small uptick from 13.7 percent in Q3 to 14.5 percent in Q4.”

“The fourth quarter also saw video ad viewability increase from 30 percent in Q3 to 39 percent in Q4,” it added. “Not surprisingly, completion rates while in view also rose from 20 percent to 26 percent. Brand risk for video saw a slight increase from 18.7 percent in Q3 to 20.7 percent in Q4, contributing to a noticeable decline in TRAQ, Integral’s overall media quality assessment score. This decline was also likely due to the increased supply of lower quality inventory made available to take advantage of a time when user attention and advertising demand were up.”

Some think native ads are the way to fight low viewability. Adam Rock from Tan Media, a content marketing and native advertising agency, writes, "For advertisers running campaigns across multiple sites and publishers, it is an acknowledged struggle to compare like with like, let alone determine what percentage of ads have been viewed by the target audience. But the issues surrounding low viewability can be solved by utilising the form of true native which, unlike traditional display, can be sold on a guaranteed viewable CPM (vCPM) rate."

"By working with a network of publishers, and an advanced native ad platform, clients can be assured they will only be charged on a vCPM basis; when the native ad unit or article preview is in-view of the user’s browser," he says. "And because the content is ad-served rather than manually placed through various publishers’ content management systems (CMS), scale, advanced campaign controls, and performance optimisation can be provided, while capturing ground-breaking consumer attention analytics not previously available to content marketers."

Demand-side platform Adform released technology this week, guaranteeing viewability for programmatic buyers, but the platform is not accredited by the MRC for its viewability measurements. DigiDay ran a sponsored article on it.

Viewability is now digital media's top concern, according to a different (non-sponsored) DigiDay article, which also highlights just how complicated the whole thing is, noting that some can't even agree on what the actual disagreement is about. As one ad tech company exec said, it's really about the value of viewability rather than viewability vs. non-viewability. How much is it worth, and will advertisers pay more or demand better for the same prices? Clearly they're demanding, but the negotiations are going to differ vastly from publisher to publisher based on the capabilities of each.

Either way, this issue isn't going to go away anytime soon, and publishers should be doing what they can to increase viewability on their end. In some cases this may mean site redesigns. AdExchanger points to some sites, including The New York Times, Time.com, and National Journal, which have implemented redesigns with viewability in mind. Sometimes, it's as simple as moving banners higher on the page.

Katrin Ribant at Adotas has an interesting article out this week about viewability as currency, which looks at joining data sets, calculating viewability rates, and optimizing toward key performance indicators on viewable media.

Thoughts on improving the situation? Share in the comments.

Image via IAB (YouTube)

Chris Crum
Chris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.