Banners and beef bourguignon: Dan Robertson on the trouble with viewable impressions

Recently I cooked my favourite meal, beef bourguignon, a stew of beef braised in red wine, broth and flavoured with garlic. Add pearl onions and mushrooms at the end. Bring to the boil and then simmer for 15 minutes. It was a disaster. As the beefy goodness bubbled I moved to the lounge, parked on the couch, and switched on Family Guy. Bad move. The gas hob doesn’t believe in simmer.

The next ad break—my cue to dash back into the kitchen—came too late. My labour of love was erupting all over the stovetop, and what remained in the pot was burnt sludge. 0800 83 83 83. It was only cold comfort that I didn’t miss any of Peter Griffin’s wistful gems. But in the ad break panic an unknown number of TV advertising messages failed to reach me, despite advertisers buying their spots on the expectation that I was in front of the television, sitting forward, watching and listening, when their messages showed up. 

Advertisers don’t like paying for ads that aren’t seen by the people they’ve paid to reach. This simmering annoyance is now being spooned onto digital advertising. The premise is that some online advertisements aren’t visible to page visitors, simply because they appear below the fold, in which case a page visitor who does not scroll down will miss the opportunity to see what was presented, the TV equivalent of being away from the screen during an ad break. 

I’m not saying there isn’t room for improvement (and another metric to add to the phalanx that currently applies to digital advertising). But as it stands now, digital advertising is more accountable than any other media.

Let’s take a closer look at the new digital advertising metric, called viewable impression. It sounds simple: advertisers pay only for ads that are actually seen by a page visitor. But the aspiration faces several technological stumbling blocks. First up, most publisher sites work by serving all advertising once the page loads. Ad servers don’t differentiate between viewable and non-viewable impressions and allocate costs on that basis. 

The next stumbling block is putting a consistent measure to what is viewable. Current definitions use a percentage of advertisement presentation area that is in a page visitor’s direct view, for so much time. It sounds feasible, but then how is this metric consistently applied across different browsers, and devices. 

Right now, there’s a race on to develop proprietary technology that establishes a universal standard. But industry adoption is no sure bet. And in the background, handheld devices proliferate and new viewer formats will pose fresh barriers to consistently accurate measurement. 

Some people wonder if anything will actually change for the better if the industry embraced a measure of viewability. Current pricing has already factored in viewability—a would-be unseen banner inherently comes with a lower price tag—just ask any digital publisher or media buyer. 

Could such a move end up costing advertisers more? After all, the viewability model should require fewer impressions to achieve the same campaign results, which will ratchet up prices to reflect the lower effectiveness of display campaigns.

Digital advertising isn’t perfect. No media is. But be careful what you wish for. Let’s wait for an open standard that is somehow able to consistently navigate all viewing experiences and devices. There’s money at stake, and vendors that offer viewable impression technology such as ComScore, spy a goldmine. The day will come, but let’s not forget that once the technology arrives the economics change for everyone.    

  • Robertson is commercial director of Mi9 New Zealand and chair of the IAB. [email protected]. The opinions expressed here are the author’s own and not necessarily the view of the IAB. 
  • This article originally appeared in the Sept/Oct edition of NZ Marketing

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