Viewability’s Changing Perception

Could we all stop freaking out about digital ad viewability for a few moments?

There’s good reason to freak out this week, but let’s calm ourselves and make some sense of what’s being talked about in the digital marketplace.  Eighteen months ago, viewability was a concern, but the companies making the biggest stink about it were:

1)      Agencies, hoping to differentiate themselves from their competition by proactively offering up viewability solutions, and

2)      Tech companies with a viewability solution to sell.

One can’t blame marketers for being skeptical that viewability was just another fad, believing that viewability stats were overblown, and thinking that non-viewable ads were part of the cost of doing business.

But now we have Google’s voice to add to the chorus of voices singing about non-viewable ads.  In fact, it claims more than half the ads on its own platforms weren’t viewable.  So unless Google is prepared to announce a viewability overhaul for its publisher partners, it looks as if we finally have an admission that fewer ads are being seen – from someone who stands to lose a lot of money as a result, and doesn’t have a viewability product to sell.  This is a big deal.

Every marketer should have a viewability solution in place, either through an agency or through its own in-house buying staff.  This is especially important if the marketer is running programmatic campaigns.  That said, we shouldn’t be freaking out about it.

I want you to think about the last time you were cruising the Interstate.  Did you notice every billboard you passed?  That’s right, you may have driven right past a billboard without even noticing it.  And no one is trying to sell you a billboard viewability solution, are they?

That’s because the component currency in all visual media is based on Opportunity to See (OTS).  Billboards, TV commercials, magazine ads – we fail to see many offline ads just as we do in digital, but no one writes news stories about it.  If a consumer had an opportunity to see the ad, it counts as an impression.  Period.

In digital, though, we can easily create the technology tools to tell us which ads were seen and which weren’t.  So we do.  And then digital gets held to a standard that other media are not held to.  Does this remind anyone of the click through rate (CTR) fiasco of the late 1990s?  At the time, media mavens remarked ‘Nobody ever pulled a TV ad from a brand campaign for having too low a click through rate.”’ It’s only because digital can measure so precisely that it’s held to a much more rigorous standard than other media.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think we should ignore viewability.  But I think we should realize that there’s low viewability due to fraud – which shows brand ads in dark corners of the web where it legitimately won’t be seen – and low viewability due to site users failing to scroll down the page.  The former is malicious and the latter is a reality of the medium just like it is for every other visual medium.  As a consumer, you see certain elements of the content, and others escape your attention.

Part of what’s driving all the freakouts is that the trade press frequently conflates fraud and low viewability.  Again, one is malicious and one isn’t.

Personally, I’d support a decluttering of digital content, where we agree as an industry to run a single ad per page of content, or something similar.  Not only would it help deal with digital’s endless supply problem when it comes to the volume of digital ad inventory, but it would also ensure that all ads are above the fold, and we could concentrate on the real problem with viewability – fraud.

Tom Hespos is the Founder and Chief Media Officer of Underscore Marketing, an integrated media agency focusing on health and healthy brands.