Digital advertising viewability – a useful guide

In online advertising there is currently much controversy about charging advertisers for ads that could never be seen by consumers. In November 2014 Google, to their credit, issued a report that showed that only around half of the ads that were served by their servers were ever able to be viewed (e.g. many viewers did not scroll down far enough for it to appear on their computer or smartphone screen). Even more extraordinary, this figure of half the ad ‘impressions’ being (potentially) viewable was based on a very generous definition of “viewable”, that is, that at least 50% of the ads pixels were onscreen for one second or more. Unsurprisingly leading advertisers are calling for higher standards of viewability, in June 2015 Unilever’s Chief Marketing Officer Keith Weed said that only 100% viewability is acceptable, that for an online ad to count as an impression 100% of the ad needs to be onscreen not merely served by the web server to the web browser or app.

Of course Keith’s right, we don’t want to pay for vapourware, but we don’t have to, even if new standards of viewability are not agreed upon we can now easily calculate a figure closer to reality simply by halving the impression score. Or, put another way, double the CPM (cost per thousand impressions).

That gets us much closer to the truth, but not quite there though.  Another consideration for online video and display ads is the problem is that some of the impressions that are served, and paid for by advertisers, are not reaching humans. Audience impression figures are inflated by views by other computers (‘spiders’ and ‘robots’) rather than actual humans. Some of this fake traffic is even fraudulent where firms collect money for delivering referrals to web sites, inflating their ratings. Fake clicks and video views can also be generated, often by virus software running on the computers of unsuspecting consumers. Major providers of online advertising space such as Facebook and Google have anti-fraud teams devoted to detecting this activity but it remains a problem. It’s difficult to know how large a problem it is, as many of the people reporting statistics have in interest in over-stating the problem (e.g. firms who sell anti-fraud solutions) or under-stating the problem (e.g. firms who sell on-line advertising space). In November 2014 Kraft is the US reported that it rejects more than three quarters of digital ad impressions deeming them “fraudulent, unsafe or non-viewable or unknown”.

That figure sounds about right given the Google research (others report similar numbers) and the fact that some impressions are non-human.

So about one in four online ad impressions is an actual opportunity to see (OTS) for a real human viewer.  However, we can’t assume each ad impression is always actually seen, and therefore able to affect memory, we have to discount for the perceptual filters and inattention of these human beings.  This is true for any media, an OTS is an opportunity for our ads to be seen not a guarantee.  Just how much this varies by media, and by situation, is something that we are researching now in the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute.  It will be some time before we have the solid empirical evidence needed to accurate compare the impact on brains of an OTS in different media.  But until then we can still make meaningful comparisons between media at least in terms of the OTS, and a good guide for digital seems to be to quadruple the cost of each impression in order to compare it to another medium.

Professor Byron Sharp
Ehrenberg-Bass Institute
University of South Australia

PS Google Ad Networks have announced that they are about to change bidding for CPM (per thousand impressions) to vCPM, which means you only pay for viewable ad impressions.  Unfortunately viewable still merely means “when 50 percent of your ad shows on screen for one second or longer for display ads, and two seconds or longer for video ads”.  So an important step in the right direction, now we have something closer to what would count as an OTS (or impression) in other media.

PPS Google suggest that you’ll need to double your old CPM bids now they are using vCPM.  This is inline with the research cited at the start of this article.

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11 thoughts on “Digital advertising viewability – a useful guide

  1. Interesting post. I am surprised to see one of the “opponents” of social and new media (and the key promoter of “mass media”) participating in this discussion and using digital ads stats to make a case for a good introduction. OTS – an interesting concept (new brand word to use for marketers?). I wonder: how exactly is this defined and how do you measure something like an “opportunity”?

  2. Thanks for sharing your views. Are you implying that Facebook is becoming a medium for mass marketing, thusly making it worthwhile now?

  3. I think the important thing is that we learn to question what we’re told by agencies, media planners and media owners and anyone devising your marketing strategy. The long and short of it is if i was an advertiser and paying for space whether it was in a local paper or a display ad on a website i’d want to know how much of my spend was being seen. The sooner we forget our loyalties to particular channels and become loyal to what works we’ll all do better ‘marketing’.

    and yes…OTS is familiar if you’ve ever touched a TV media schedule

    • I am working in digital. Hence, I may be a bit biased. I completely agree: always question what the media agency tries to sell to you (they often act in their interest and not for client). It is probably prudent to always question results, including findings from EBI (which have their own definition of how good research should look like).

  4. Pingback: Gambling With Your Client’s Money: The Mythical “Rule Of 7” – Atomic Tango

  5. Pingback: The Mythical Rule of 7 And Why It’s Hazardous To Your Marketing | Marketing Forensics

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