Avoiding Pitfalls When Setting A Viewability Standard

Viewability, ad fraud and ad blocking are three things making headlines in the digital ad business recently that make marketers wonder if their ads are being seen at all.

Predictably, execs at holding company agencies have blown a lot of hot air over the past year when it comes to a viewability threshold.  Last year, some agencies even claimed they would only buy ads that were 100 percent viewable – kind of what you might expect a big agency with tons of spending clout to insist upon in order to protect its clients.

“But Tom,” you might be thinking, “why would I accept anything less than 100% viewability for my digital display ads?”  Here are two really good reasons: 1) Feasibility, and 2) Precedent.

Let’s deal with Precedent first.  In every other paid medium from broadcast to billboards, your media currency is based on an opportunity to see (OTS).  That is, ad sellers will make their best commercially-reasonable efforts to display the ad, but can’t guarantee it will actually be seen.

Think about it.  Your TV commercial could play on “Pawn Stars” just when Uncle Floyd decides to head for the kitchen to make himself a peanut butter sandwich, but it counts.  Mom might not see your roadside billboard because she picked that moment to change the radio station in the minivan, but it counts.  The ad is there, in a position that makes it very likely that people will see it, but in the end, nobody can guarantee it.

If there’s something that characterizes digital media over the past two decades, it’s that its metrics have been woefully out of alignment with that of other, more mainstream media.  Precedent dictates we don’t put digital in a position to go even further off the reservation, lest we be stuck comparing apples and oranges forever.  Adopting a guaranteed viewability threshold as an industry means digital will hold itself to a higher standard – again.  Anyone remember what happened the last time we did this?

Then there’s the notion of feasibility.  Changing currency requires that publishers actually understand the value equation, and it will take publishers a while to understand why certain ads on their sites aren’t viewable.  They will be able to make improvements over time, but they’re never going to get to 100%, and selling inventory with a 100% viewable guarantee will mean an effective cut to their average CPM.

And when purchasing inventory on the open exchanges, there’s no machinations for turning back non-viewable impressions, unless they’re already being picked up as fraud or likely to be non-viewable in a pre-bid capacity.  Again, you might be able to make improvements to average viewability over time, but you’ll never get to 100%.  And if advertisers are expecting to pay only for viewable ads, somebody is going to have to take a haircut.  With no real method for disallowing all non-viewable impressions, it’s either going to be the agency or any DSPs they might use who would have to pay for any purchased ads that turned out to be non-viewable.

No, a realistic viewability standard that has any sort of sustainability needs to understand market dynamics and avoid taking an absolutist stance right out of the gate.

It’s also important that advertisers and agencies avoid conflating fraud and non-viewable ads.  Because these things happen to both be making headlines at the same time, it would be easy to do so.  Make no mistake, though, fraud is its own issue.  Viewability deals with the legitimate ads you’re left with once you filter out bot activity, ads deliberately rendered in hidden spots, pixel stuffing and all the other nefarious ways hackers try to use in order to separate digital advertisers from their ad budgets.

In addition, ad blocking has little to do with viewability, so avoid confusing the issue.  Ads that are blocked are not rendered in the browser and thus aren’t counted.

A realistic viewability threshold exists somewhere between the low end (40-80%, depending on who you believe) and the ideal of 100%.  The Interactive Advertising Bureau’s suggestion of 70% is probably a much better starting point than the completely unrealistic 100% proposed by certain agencies.

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