The Road To Understanding Viewable Ad Impressions

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Image via iStockphoto used under license

According to a recent comScore study of a dozen major brands, including Allstate, Ford and Kellogg’s, 31 percent of online ads go unseen by consumers.

Recently, I moderated a panel of experts in the field, and they all said they’d seen typical rates of unseen ads coming in at over 50%, and, in the worst cases, up to 80% of ads are going unseen.

How can this be? Perhaps because of where an ad is placed (below the fold, in another window, etc.), page load times, or in the case of a few bad actors, downright fraud. Consequently, many of us in the industry are engaged in an ongoing debate about creating a new “viewable impression metric.”

What Exactly Is A Viewable Ad Impression?

If the entire page was only loaded for one-second before it was closed, can marketers claim the ad on the page was seen? If all of the ads are refreshed on a screen after inactivity for five minutes or more – were any users there to see them? If there are 20 ads on a page that was designed just to lure consumers to it – did visitors actually see an ad on that page?

While it remains clear that a viewable ad impression metric is needed within the industry – exactly what that means is still being debated.

Where Does Data Come Into Play?

Another factor that influences viewability, at least viewability by the right audience, is the accuracy of data — this is because viewability really only comes into play if you are buying ads in real time (RTB) or via aggregators/networks.

If you want to be sure your ad is seen, just buy from a site directly. Although even the biggest and best publishers are occasionally tricked by fraudsters, this is rare, and if you are buying a full-page take-over or other custom placement, according to experts I’ve talked to, it is very likely that your viewability rating will be in excess of 90%.

This approach will actually not work for most marketers because their budgets are not big enough to buy media in that way (it’s expensive to buy large custom units from big publishers), or because like so many people, the marketer is buying the ad placement because s/he has data on the person viewing the page – demographic, customer data, psychographic data or search history.

Some of this data is well known and verifiable – for example, if you are re-targeting people who have visited your site — but if you are buying third-party data, there’s lots of information around to suggest that much of it is inaccurate.

If so, how are you going to verify that you really reached the segment you were targeting? Put another way, if your ad was seen by someone outside your targeted segment, do you want to count it is seen or “viewed”?  So, just as we move forward with standards in viewability, we’re going to have to start thinking hard about standards for data, as well.

Will Viewability Affect The Value Of Display Ads?

The true evil of unseen ads is that they flood the market with inventory, thus lowering prices for publishers. Lower publisher prices means less investment in content, which inevitably means worse ad placement and thus, worse ad performance, which starts a downward spiral of lower quality and pricing for everyone.

Of course, it’s terrible that an advertiser pays for an ad that is never seen, but the effect on pricing in the ecosystem is potentially much worse and more dramatic.

Most People See Most Ads, Isn’t That Good Enough?

I’ve heard some digerati disparage the entire viewability debate by suggesting that we are being held to too high a standard. After all, we all know that not all 30-second spots are viewed on TV, and yet, that industry still dwarfs the digital world.

This is a spurious argument. Just because something is broken somewhere else doesn’t mean it should be broken in the digital world. We have the ability to know exactly who has seen what ad and where, and while an error rate of 5-10% is probably acceptable, anything much beyond that is not.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m still striving to be the best I can be regardless of what everyone else is doing.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Display Advertising | Display Advertising Column


About The Author: is chief executive officer at search retargeting leader Magnetic charged with driving overall company expansion and building out Magnetic’s search retargeting infrastructure.

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  • Kirby Winfield

    Great take James. As a retargeter, though, I am surprised you missed one of the worst byproducts of the unviewable impression (and one that annihilates the TV skipping comparison): the utter waste of expensive behavioral and retargeting data on unseen ads. Likely a $1B+ problem.

  • Chris Elwell

    Curious: How did the participants in your panel measure the “unseen” rate? Sounds like a stat that would be difficult to measure and easily manipulated.


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