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Fifty Shades of Viewability

June 02, 2015

Given the past few months of coverage, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone in the industry that hasn’t heard about the ongoing struggle of “viewability.” Jonah Goodhart, CEO of brand analytics company Moat, posits that “Viewability has become table stakes - no other conversation about marketer success can happen if the message never made it to the user - however the quicker we solve for the table stakes, the quicker we can focus on the real upside which is helping marketers drive true brand success in digital.”

Yet like many buzzwords, the viewability conversation continues and evolves largely due to the fact that it is defined, measured, and paid for very differently depending on who you’re asking. As a concept, viewability is simple; it is whether an advertisement was “viewable” on the screen to which it was served, be that display, video or mobile. But what constitutes viewable varies across the industry – is it a number of pixels shown without needing to scroll? Or is it the number of seconds on screen? What are the differences among media types? And also under consideration is whether or not “viewable” is synonymous with “seen.” 

The IAB and MRC (Media Ratings Council) define display viewability as at least 50% of the pixels being viewable for at least 1 second (2 seconds for video), but many marketers have adopted their own metrics and ways of evaluating delivery data for performance and payment. As an example, major brands such as Ford and Unilever announced they require 100% of a video ad’s player displayed on screen to count as viewable. Regarding display advertisements, Havas now requires 100% of pixels on screen to qualify as viewable. 

The publisher side has a different take on the IAB’s definition as well, often adopting a milder definition of viewability. For example, publishing giant Facebook qualifies any viewed ad as viewable, regardless of whether it displayed on screen a full second. For large display ads (970X250 pixels or greater), AOL requires only 30% be in view. Despite this, most publishers agree optimizing for viewability is ideal for their properties as well, and large players from AOL to Forbes are in the process of redesigning their sites for this very reason.

Where are marketers losing the greatest amount of their spend?

Video suffers most when it comes to viewability, with some providers finding averages as low as 32%; this is of special concern to marketers given video’s high price and inventory scarcity. 

Direct publisher buys also perform better when it comes to viewability than those purchased through exchanges or networks. This should come as no surprise, as marketers have greater control over the sites on which their ads are served with direct buys, and the ad’s positioning (such as above the fold, leaderboard, etc. which are a major factor in an ad’s viewability potential).

It should also be noted that viewability is only quantified within measurable impressions. But wait – aren’t all impressions measurable? In fact, no, at least not for every company that measures viewability. Served impressions where a backup creative is displayed, such as when primary creative is rich media displaying on an unsupported device  or when a tag is in a cross-domain (more than one browser) iframe,  are not accounted for by some vendors.  Thus none of these impressions are measured nor factored into the viewability of total impressions for those companies. 

So...who pays for ads no one saw?

The IAB has established a standard here with 70% of impressions measured as viewable considered the threshold. If this is met, publishers are billed on the total number of served impressions, regardless of how many were not viewable. If that 70% isn’t met, publishers issue make-goods of comparable quality until the threshold is met, and then collect the full value of the served impressions. And yet again, the “standard” isn’t necessarily a “standard” as recent press has covered top brands refusing to foot the bill for campaigns with any number of unviewable ads, regardless of whether the threshold was met.

How are marketers responding?

A recent survey showed that 21% of marketers consider viewability the #1 most important media quality measurement (behind ad fraud at 33% and brand safety at 26%). So despite the lack of consensus there are some best practices that can be deployed on both the buy and sell side. 

1)    Adopt a standard. It can be the IAB’s, your brand’s or agency’s criteria for measuring viewability, and include the threshold of viewable impressions that will be considered success. 
2)    Determine which tools you’ll use for measuring. There are accredited third party services specializing in determining viewability such as Moat, and some ad servers offer their delivery data using CPMV as a cost method.
3)    Consider using more than one tool for viewability. Platforms such as Mediaocean’s Prisma allow delivery retrieval from multiple providers to help you better evaluate performance.
4)    Loop your publishers. Discuss with your publishers which services you are using for measurement and how that will stack up with the publisher’s first party delivery data – when discrepancies are substantial, how will this affect billing?

Interested in learning more about the technologies offered to measure viewability? Check out this 101 post from the MBuy blog!