Viewability in programmatic media: An honest conversation

By Eric Picard, Ari Buchalter & Mike Monaco (Originally Published on iMedia – October 1, 2015)

An advertisement — whether it’s a banner ad, video pre-roll, mobile pop-up, or anything else — needs to be viewed by a consumer for it to be valuable for the company placing the ad. But does that mean advertisers should only pay for ads that are “viewable”? The answer is complicated.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) defines a viewable ad as at least 50 percent in-view for at least one second. Even with a standard in place, vendors measuring performance use their own proprietary means for calculating “viewability” scores. Despite commonalities, no two vendors net the same score. It’s up to advertisers, agencies, and their ad-tech partners to determine which viewability vendors are providing the most accurate score. These scores are not just important post-ad placement. In the programmatic space, knowing in advance if the ad is viewable is key. Vendors have rolled out pre-bid viewability targeting as a result, and programmatic buying platforms should have this capability.

Viewability is not an issue for advertisers and ad-tech companies to solve alone. Publishers are reacting to the demand for more viewable inventory. Some are redesigning their websites to promise higher numbers of ads in view, even guaranteeing viewable space.

Should advertisers only buy from exchanges or publishers guaranteeing viewable inventory? Of course not, and especially not in programmatic buying. Viewability is only part of the equation in making a decision of when and where to place an ad. If you have a segment of highly responsive users, like shopping cart “abandoners,” it might still be a high-value ad buy even if the viewability score is not at 100 percent. You risk missing a potential convertor, and possibly at a lower CPM, for the sake of one metric like viewability.

For clarity, just because an impression does not get scored as viewable — or doesn’t have a high probability of being viewable — doesn’t mean the user didn’t view the impression. We recognize that this is a confusing issue because viewability is based on a variety of methodologies that often include some consideration of probability. So when buying in the programmatic space, viewability is not necessarily the primary score that should be used, although it can certainly be a valuable metric.

There is a false conflation of viewability and fraud — meaning that sometimes the market has believed that when an impression is viewable, it is by nature not fraudulent. This is not the case, and it’s important to understand that the two things are not the same. Fraudsters have become wise to the fact that markets care about viewable ads, leading to a new type of fraud: view fraud. They can easily manipulate web behavior in order to pad a flimsy viewability metric. In fact, a 2014 study by White Ops reveals that when examining the viewability score of fraudulent entities versus real humans, the fraud actually exhibited a higher viewability.

In the programmatic space, we can swiftly push aside view fraud as an issue by optimizing to real advertiser outcomes, which are harder to manipulate. Optimizing to outcomes such as product purchases or validated account sign-ups are two great examples. Even for brand marketers, or those without online purchases to measure, a curated list of other success metrics can be used; downloads, email submissions, content viewed on site, time spent on site, and pages viewed are all such examples. These are much better success indicators than viewability.

In either case, a marketer can introduce A/B testing in order to see what benefit the media served had over an unexposed group. This methodology is easy to implement, with one nice byproduct being that in order to optimize to real outcomes, the ad has to actually be seen in order to prove lift. Even media at a slightly lower percentage viewed can drive better performance lift if the audience is more responsive.

In addition to A/B testing, you can also consider scrubbing out any conversions where the ad was deemed unviewable. While not perfect, due to the technical limitations described earlier, the focus on the viewability-required business outcome will promote better media planning decisions for future campaigns.

Publishers understand that viewable ads are in high demand, so they charge a premium for this inventory, often in the form of private marketplace deals. In cases where publishers are charging a fixed CPM or high floor price, the money you spent to pay that premium likely overshadows any waste you might have encountered from purchasing open-market non-viewable ads. Choosing a better KPI should solve for viewability by default, but there are still some marketers fixated on 100 percent viewability as a goal.

Unfortunately, percentages don’t tell you anything about media cost. If you are able to achieve 80 percent viewability, but at half the cost, and consequently serve more of those highly responsive cart abandoners, why would we necessarily care about achieving 100 percent viewability? You may argue that the more expensive ads are more “premium” in nature, but without considering additional KPIs, what does premium even mean? In an ideal world, we’d be serving 100 percent viewable ads to every user we identify to be high value. However, due to the vendor and supply constraints described earlier, this simply isn’t feasible in the present state of the market.

The pursuit of high viewability might be worthwhile, but instead of relying simply on a percentage metric to define success, remember what outcomes you are ultimately trying to achieve. Being able to tout 100 percent viewability does not get you any closer to driving true business outcomes, and in fact, can distract you from the metrics that do correlate to your outcomes — finding the right audience, supply mix, and creative messaging, and then valuing each element appropriately.

Eric Picard is vice president of product planning for omni-channel media at MediaMath. Co-author Mike Monaco is MediaMath’s vice president of programmatic strategy and optimization, and co-author Ari Buchalter is president of technology at the company.

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