Tying Payment to Advertising Viewability

Digital is the most measurable advertising medium ever created. The data that is generated from a single digital campaign can be overwhelming to interpret and use effectively to take action. And the data just keeps growing.

Innovations are improving to more accurately measure whether or not a digital ad was “viewable,” which according to the Media Ratings Council (MRC) means 50% of the ad unit appearing within the viewable region of a user’s screen for at least one second. This definition varies based on larger ad units, video ad units and others non-traditional media. While the viewability technologies are improving, these measurement systems still often deliver quite different results when employed side by side. In short, no real standards exist yet.

There is no doubt that measuring such a data point and acting on it in a media plan is a great step forward for digital advertising in separating the “wasted” advertising from the “impactful” advertising. As these measurement technologies improve, we move one step closer to realizing John Wanamaker’s Dream—figuring out which half of his advertising is wasted (see April 2015 issue column: http://bit.ly/20ruOrK).

Is viewability truly “guaranteed?”

Media prices have always historically reflected a price for the “opportunity to see” an ad, not a guarantee that the ad would be seen. However, some agencies have jumped on this new technology as a means to renegotiate and pay only for viewable advertising. This sounds great in theory—why pay for impressions that weren’t seen? But in practice, we don’t know which impressions will be seen and which will not until the impression renders.

Any time you change compensation terms in an agreement, they should be very carefully considered, as they may have unintended consequences—and these concern me. The reason media exists is because publishers have a unique core competency in their ability to attract and gain loyal readership from audiences that are attractive to marketers. If marketers could attract the audience equally well or better, there would be no need for a media transaction.

However, when a publisher’s compensation shifts to a model whereby they must negatively impact that user experience in order to get paid, by for instance, putting ad units in locations and environments that a user might find intrusive, we risk the unintended consequence of losing and further fragmenting audiences. If we kill user experience, we risk killing the golden goose that delivers audiences on demand when marketers need them. The economics of shifting from a transaction historically based on the “opportunity to see” to one based on “guaranteed exposure” will also have the unintended consequence of higher prices as supply is ultimately removed from the market.

Viewability is clearly an important metric to monitor and measure. Media buying decisions and optimization decisions should definitely consider viewability of advertising as one important factor. But many other factors go into planning as well, such as audience reach, frequency and quality, engagement rates, and most importantly, ROI. But tying payment to just one new and unproven metric, in the avalanche of data created by digital advertising, is likely to have significant unintended consequences—some of which we won’t foresee.


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