Is There An End In Sight To The Viewability Crisis?

Companies in the business of measuring viewability say the process of estimating and paying for viewable impressions isn’t as contentious as it was a year or two ago. But that doesn’t necessarily mean consensus has been reached or resolve how it applies to mobile.

Is There An End In Sight To The Viewability Crisis?

In the time it took you to read these words, a second has gone by. In that short period, you could have viewed half an online ad and got the gist of it.

That, at least, is the contention of the Media Rating Council (MRC). In 2014, after studying the issue, the organization determined that seeing 50% of a banner ad for one second counts as a view. For videos, the rule is 50% for two seconds. As for mobile, this month the MRC began weighing in and released a draft version of its Mobile Viewable Advertising Impression Guidelines for public comment, ending April 30.

If the past is any guide, the process will have some hiccups. After the release of the desktop viewability guidelines, GroupM came out and said it believes that 100% of the ad must be in view for a full second to be considered viewable. Facebook, meanwhile has said it considers an ad viewable if the entire ad has passed through a user’s News Feed.

Though these various standards often conflict, companies in the business of measuring viewability say the process of estimating and paying for viewable impressions isn’t as contentious as it was a year or two ago. Though they often need education, most marketers eventually accept that 100% viewability is impossible. Deals are usually worked out based on viewable CPMs, which are verified after the fact. Some talk of future measurements that are based on human interaction with ads instead of the flawed viewabilty measurement.

Still, the debates over viewability have largely been settled. “We are seeing significant progress in 2016,” said Jonah Goodhart, CEO and co-founder of Moat, an analytics firm. “Many marketers have shifted to transact on ‘human and viewable,’ and many publishers are beginning to create ad products where human and viewable is baked into the offering.”

Kara Manatt, VP of consumer research strategy at IPG Media Lab, agreed: “I feel like it’s been this big crescendo, but in the last year it’s become table stakes.”

How We Got To Here

As Goodhart explained to, Web advertising wasn’t designed with viewability in mind. Though ads may be loaded to a page, they may be too high, too low, or too small to be seen. In addition, up to 36% of page views may be faked by bots, according to a 2014 IAB study.

As a result, in the early 2010s, advertisers started arguing loudly and with justification that they shouldn’t have to pay for ads that aren’t being viewed. In response, the ad industry’s biggest holding companies, including GroupM, Publicis, and IPG, and advertisers worked with the MRC to scientifically determine a reasonable standard for viewabilty. They determined that was 50% over one second. Shortly after the MRC published the standard, GroupM changed course and decided to back a competing standard.

Sherrill Mane, SVP of research, analytics, and measurement for the Interactive Advertising Bureau, said the issue was further muddied by some media companies’ insistence that the standard also take into account the impact of an ad. “The position has consistently been before we can stress impact we have to know we’re counting exposures in as consistent a fashion as we can,” Mane said. “If there was contention, some of it was based on misinformation and some was based on negotiating stances.”

Viewability and Ad Effectiveness

David Gunzerath, SVP and associate director at the MRC, said that misinformation is often the result of equating viewability with efficacy.

“It’s about the opportunity to see an ad,” he said. “It’s not about engagement with the ad. It’s establishing that baseline minimum opportunity to see it which can then be compared to similar metrics and other media types.”

Viewability has an effect on ad efficacy, which is where the confusion often lies. A recent study by IPG Media Lab, for instance, found that ads that met the MRC’s standards for viewability had a recall rate of 2% versus 16% for ads that exceed the standard. Comparatively, a recent study by Ohio State University found that viewers were able to recall 2.43 out of every three brands they saw on a 30-second TV ad.

Still, Manatt said that the recall rates cited in the study were good. The research reinforced the belief that the longer a consumer sees an ad, the more likely he is to remember it. That said, Manatt downplayed the importance of viewability as a key performance indicator.

“Our stance on viewability is that it’s something we should track and be aware of because it’s very strongly related to ad effectiveness, but we should not focus on it and be distracted by it as a KPI,” she said. “We should keep those KPIs the same. Even when viewability is an issue, we should focus on those KPIs and just track viewability.”

Bryan Sherman, VP and director of programmatic at DigitasLBi, agreed. “Viewability is an ingredient in the recipe of success,” he told He added that it’s important to know what the other ingredients are and how viewability works with them.

100% Viewability?

In practice, viewability is somewhat of a cat-and-mouse game among advertisers and publishers. “[Publishers] still want to sell those nonviewable impressions to someone,” Sherman said. “If we don’t make sure we’re monitoring and tracking it, then you can still find yourself with poor performance.”

Though it’s common sense (and proved by IPG Labs’ study) that the more viewable ads are, the better they perform, paying more for guaranteed viewable impressions often doesn’t net better performance, Sherman said. “Our perspective is that an ad needs to be viewed to have an impact, but we don’t want to pay more for an entire buy to get that. We just want to work with publishers to look for ways to better place our ads so that we do see the higher rates,” he said.

In a direct buy with publishers, Sherman said, viewability rates are around 50% to 60%. With an RTB buy, it’s more like 40% to 50%. “Of course, if you tell your supplier up-front that you’re going to be tracking viewability, they generally will flip the switch,” he said. After that, the rates for RTB-based buys are more in the 70% to 75% range. Such viewability rates are baked into the price.

Why not 100%? Last year, Google announced it would promise 100% viewability by forecasting when an impression will be in the reader’s field of vision—meaning not on top of the page when the reader has scrolled to the bottom and not playing one tab when a user is in another. Advertisers pay a 30% premium for Google’s 100% viewability promise, Peter Longo, CEO of U.S. media at IDG Communications, told Digiday. In practice, this isn’t very different from negotiating a buy based on a 70% viewability rate.

Seventy percent, in fact, is the IAB’s standard—and that’s probably as good as it will get for now, Mane said. Full viewability is “an aspirational goal,” she said, “[but] based on the technology, not every ad will be seen 100% all the time across every campaign.”

Next Hurdles

While the viewability debate has died down, the driving force for the détente is inertia. Advertisers have accepted that full viewability is either impossible or of dubious value if it costs extra.

The MRC’s draft mobile ad viewability guidelines, meanwhile, follow the same format as desktop: 50% of pixels should be viewable for one second. The organization is looking into whether ads in news feed environments should be held to a different standard. The MRC is hoping to have a release ready some time in Q2. That focus comes as some are questioning the premise of viewability.

For instance, over time, Goodhart said, viewability might be supplanted by other metrics that have more meaning for advertisers. Such measurements could address the problem head-on because they “more appropriately value inventory based on attention and quality signals, instead of just the existence of an ad on the screen for one or two seconds,” he said.

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