Digital Advertising

Viewability And Its Discontents

JimViewability. It is the cause du jour. You can’t swing a dead cat at an industry function – or an industry trade pub – without hitting someone who is talking about viewability.

According to the comScore Viewability Study only 46% of display ads were ever viewed by consumers. Only 31% of inventory delivered by ads networks and exchanges is actually visible. Google just generated much buzz with a recently published study that only a hair under 44% of the ads they serve are viewable because those ads not able to be seen are served outside the browser.

No doubt that in order for advertising to work, it actually needs to be able to be seen. A light under a bushel provides no illumination. The fact that this is even a reality is stunning, and suggests a host of weaknesses in the digital advertising infrastructure that other media, due quite honestly to their relative technical simplicity, do not have to worry about.

But what if 100% of ad impressions could be seen? Would people suddenly become more responsive to your advertising online? There is some data out there that indicates if ads are seen, there is positive impact on branding. But that’s like saying if I see a movie, my chances of enjoying it go up versus if I don’t see it at all. What it doesn’t mean is that if I see the movie I WILL enjoy it. It just means I have an opportunity for doing so.

And that’s important. And opportunity to engage with a brand through advertising is necessary for… Well… Engaging with a brand. But what the conversation about viewability does is take our eyes off of more fundamental issues that plague digital advertising.

I wrote in my first article for the Makegood that I was a natural contrarian, so keep that in mind when reading what comes next.

I think that the whole hysteria over viewability is a red herring to distract from a more fundamental issue regarding online advertising; namely, is online advertising really effective after all? The industry has spent the first 5 years rationalizing digital’s effectiveness by virtue of its traceability, only to spend the next 15 years tarring and feathering one gap in trackablity after another as a fault for weaknesses in the system. The truth could be that advertising, as we know it, is not suited to digital.

Ana Andjelic, now head of digital strategy at Spring Studios, and I were once on an IAB panel together and she made the bold statement that, maybe while digital is great for marketing, maybe it isn’t very good for advertising. The room blanched, and I gasped. But my aspiration was due to the fact that I suspected I was in violent agreement.

I suspect that after first laying a foundation of data abundance for digital rationale and the subsequent hunting for one reason after another as to why that alone hasn’t produced the results we want could indicate that the whole premise is flawed. It’s like living in a room full of noxious gas and looking for ways to put windows in so as to get at some fresh air: maybe living in a room full of noxious gas is the problem, not the lack of windows.

I certainly agree that ads need to actually be SHOWN. And I think that, if one can, one should control as much as they can for ensuring that shown ads are in turn actually SEEN; even if this is asking more of the digital medium than is asked of other media (which it is). But I think the continued focus on impression waste is a distraction from the fact that those impressions that are not wasted are currently only moderately effective. Why? Because so much of the heavy lifting has been foisted off onto programmatic, to which we have not only surrendered the labor of managing transactions, but also the responsibility of judgement. This has led to neglecting the other aspects of advertising that makes advetising advertising. Things like influence and persuasion and solving the mysteries of human behavior through intelligent coordination of placement and creative.

But truly creative online executions have essentially been neutered because the focus has been on scale, fast and cheap. And there’s nothing wrong with trying to achieve that, but not at the expense of deliberate effectiveness. The emphasis has been on scale, fast and cheap because the focus has been on mitigating risk — reasonably so — and the only tangible manifestation of risk marketers can ostensibly impact is pricing. At least up to a point. But now we have ads served lickety split at the lowest cost imaginable and performance is still pretty lame… I mean, when you can only prove that maybe 1% of an exposed audience saw your ad based on machine-readable action? Tough stuff.

Focus needs to be on how to become part of your intended audience’s “flow experience,” an integrated, indispensable, but often unconscious part of their lives. This means using social not only as an ad platform but as a source of intelligence. This means looking at the Internet of things to quadrangulate your audience to not only better understand when the conditions for engagement are present (attention, opportunity and interest), but to determine how to bring those states together. This means using advertising as advertising: not just a bonk on the head with a brand logo and a few words delivered in a display ad, but an act of rhetorical engagement for the sake of persuasion. All of this requires more intelligent, strategic effort that looks at everything from human behavior to technological deployment to preparation of the black swan of the unforeseeable.

Viewability is certainly important, but let’s realize it is counting trees, not seeing forests. It’s necessary for solving for the puzzle of advertising. But let’s not let it distract from solving the mystery of marketing.

Your friendly neighborhood Mediaologist.

Jim Meskauskas is a co-founder and Chief Strategic Officer of Media Darwin, a consultancy specializing in strategic planning of commercial communicative action. He’s a medialogist who has spent the last 20 years living, breathing and thinking about how to use media to move people to action. Outside of that, his likes are horror movies, Southeast Asian cuisine, his wife and his cat — not necessarily in that order. His dislikes are mean people, people who text while walking in or out of the subway entrances, pestilence, war, famine and death.