What We Need To Do To Make Online Viewability Standards Work

Transforming a $US50b ad marketplace is no easy feat — especially when it comes to shifting our industry currency from served impressions to viewable ones.

And while promoting viewability is a worthy goal, we kid ourselves if we think the Media Rating Council’s recent standards come even close to putting the issue to bed.

The MRC’s rulings for both display and online video ads have largely been perceived as a much-needed assist for digital marketers searching for solid inventory — ie, stronger ROI. They’re a win for the industry, right?

For us as a publisher, however, the MRC’s recent rulings trigger almost as many questions as they seem to answer. The industry has to honestly address some fairly complicated issues before we can actually turn the corner on this long-standing problem.

Here are just a few of the questions we believe need to be tackled before the industry can claim any true measure of success when it comes to serving ads that advertisers want:

  1. Are we looking to correct a wrong — or just make incremental improvements?

    Advertisers and agencies have traditionally taken the position that their expectation of viewability is at or near 100%. They have assumed that nearly ALL of the ads they purchase are being seen. By that reasoning, a site with only 80% viewability would therefore “owe” an advertiser 20% more impressions (well, actually more than that) at the same price. How, then, would measuring viewability impact pricing? While viewability measurement can be a valuable tool for identifying bad actors, does this mean that publishers with strong viewability metrics could charge a premium over standard rates? And what happens when wild discrepancies are found? (For instance, I’ve heard reports by some advertisers who’ve found partners serving less than 10% of a campaign in view.)

  2. What is the responsibility of third-party ad servers?

    While publishers should be focused on increasingly viewability, for this to be achieved, rich media vendors need to speed up their ad delivery times. Though a publisher can do everything right — the page loads quickly, ad calls are served asynchronously, etc — if a vendor’s ad takes 5+ (!!) seconds to load, there’s not much a publisher can do to compensate. The bottom line is that our business should also account for — and attempt to address — the too frequent failure to serve ads faster than it takes a viewer to scroll down a page.

  3. And what about the “tricky” stuff?

    “Viewable” ads don’t exist in a silo. Many legacy issues must be addressed — for instance, the notion of “above the fold,” competitive separation, roadblocks and more. We need to come to a common understanding of what these mean in light of viewability. How do we, um, view continuous scrolling in which ads are served as a visitor moves down the page? And if an advertiser has purchased a roadblock, does that mean it should own every impression on that page? If a brand has competitive separation requirements, do they apply to ads served further down the page — even thousands of pixels away?

We don’t mean to suggest that these hard-to-answer questions mean that achieving viewability isn’t doable or that it’s not a worthy goal. It’s certainly necessary, as no brand can achieve success with a campaign that goes largely unseen, despite even a well-executed message and the benefits of modern targeting.

We do, however, believe that the industry needs to take a more holistic — and fairer — approach in advocating for more viewability, one which more fully takes into account the realities about how ads are served today.

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