Served but not seen: how the industry is dealing with the issue of viewability

  • Media
  • September 24, 2015
  • Damien Venuto
Served but not seen: how the industry is dealing with the issue of viewability

Since online advertising first emerged, publishers have been selling their ads with the promise that they’re targeted to specific audiences and trackable. And this is true to some degree. The tech platforms available on the market today certainly do have the ability to serve ads onto specific websites, but whether those ads are seen by humans or anyone at all is a completely different issue. 

In late 2014, Google released a report admitting that 56 percent of all the impressions served on its display platforms were not seen by anyone at all. And this, when viewed alongside a survey by the Association of National Advertisers (the US-based partner of ANZA) showing the extent of bot fraud painted a very troubling picture for an industry that essentially trades on certainty and accuracy.

Those in advertising have for some time been fully aware of the viewability issues at hand, but the affordability of the platforms—compared to the more expensive traditional channels—made it a fair trade off. 

As OMD general manager Andrew Reinholds previously explained: “Ultimately programmatic for OMD delivers such a cost-effective audience for our clients that even say if 25 percent of the clicks were fraudulent, the way we track and optimise, then the remaining 75 percent of the actual clicks are of real value for us and the CPA [cost per action] delivered will be well below other types of buys.”

However, with brands across the industry now shifting more ad spend across to digital, there has been increased demand for more accountability. 

“The growth in advertising expenditure on digital channels has brought increased focus on accountability across a range of issues – viewability is one of these, along with ad fraud, transparency, ad blocking and brand safety,” says ANZA chief executive Lindsay Mouat. “I see the growing interest in these issues as a reflection of the maturing of digital.”

The latest IAB ad spend figures show Kiwi marketers spent $184.7 million on digital advertising in the second quarter of 2015 and that programmatic was one of the fastest growing sectors, accounting for 17 percent of the $37.5 million contributed by the display category.

This growth is even more pronounced in some international markets, and the call for greater veiwability tracking has reverberated across the world. However, what viewability means depends on who you’re talking to. 

The IAB NZ relies on the Media Council Rating (MRC) standard, which stipulates a video ad will be counted as viewable when 50 percent or more of pixels are in view for at least one continuous seconds.

This definition has not won the support of everyone in the industry, with some claiming it is too vague and doesn’t provide an accurate reflection of user behaviour.    

“I don't agree with MRC standards,” Rachel Herskovitz, the global media manager at American Express, told Adexchanger last year. “Their definition of viewability doesn’t make sense. No one spends a second viewing an ad. If that becomes our standard, we'll build technology around that and I think that's a mistake.”

VivaKi’s head of digital Nick Boulstridge admits the standard isn’t watertight, but says it’s a step in the right direction. “The terms are slightly vague but necessary as a minimum benchmark,” he says.

Boulstridge says this definition is still not being met across the industry, meaning the IAB still has work to do in encouraging publishers to achieve this baseline standard.

If the digital age has taught us anything, it’s that baselines shift, and Boulstridge sees this happening as the industry continues to evolve.

“As we gain more insights through tracking/ad-serving media the more we will be able to look at definitions of viewability. The percentages will also surely change as publishers offer guaranteed viewable ads and agencies invest in tech that also tracks for this such as ComScore VCE.”

This is already being reflected in the moves of GroupM, Twitter and Facebook, which have all developed their own standards of viewability. 

And it's also becoming more common for publishers and programmatic players to partner with third-party tracking tools that give advertisers the ability to gauge the levels of viewability of an ad.   

The most recent of these partnerships was confirmed last week, when Facebook announced via a blog post that it would give its advertisers access to Moat’s viewability tracking services:

“As more advertisers use video ads to build brand awareness and drive sales, they want to know that their video ad metrics are accurate. So we’re partnering with Moat, an independent third-party, to verify Facebook video ads. As part of the partnership, we’re integrating Moat technology to verify video ad views and view lengths, giving interested advertisers assurance that they know exactly how their video campaigns are performing.”

Locally, Acquire Online programmatic director Zane Furtado says that his organisation has also introduced Moat as an option for customers. 

Furtado says Moat allows users to measure precisely how much users engage with an ad, meaning that Acquire Online can now deliver that information directly to customers.

  • See a demonstration here

He also says that since the introduction of Moat, he has added several websites to the Acquire Online’s blacklist, because they simply don’t meet the minimum standards expected by advertisers. 

Furtado says the worst performing sites in his experience are coolmath-games.com, halfbakedharvest.com, multiple Manga sites, likes.com and 163.com. And while buying impressions on sites like these might be cheap, Furtado warns they add little value to the advertiser.

AdRoll managing director Ben Sharp believes issues regarding viewability require all the parties involved to take steps.

“Publishers need to be honest about the inventory they're selling, ad techs need to be transparent with their clients about where their ads are appearing and advertisers need to be prepared to make an investment in quality inventory on quality content sites," Sharp says.

This last point is particularly pertinent, given the most viewable inventory tends to be the most expensive and demands the largest investment from the advertiser. And in much the same way that a billboard along Auckland’s Queen Street costs more than a poster pasted to a wall in a dark alley, premium inventory will demand a greater investment.

But digital advertising isn’t alone in being criticised for the murkiness of its practices. The television industry has still not released minute-by-minute ratings; magazine readership numbers and outdoor data are often questioned; and the radio diary approach is considered antiquated. And given that these discussions continue to this day, it’s unlikely that the viewability issue is going to die down anytime soon. 

As Mouat says: “How this plays out is in the hands of publishers and also advertisers in terms of where they invest. But I don’t see the debate going away anytime soon, which means we should see greater focus on the quality of digital audiences.”
 

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