Today’s column is by Andrew Shebbeare, Founding Partner & Chief Strategist at Essence Digital.
Ad viewability is technically and logistically bewildering. If you need proof, read Jeremy Stanley's excellent two-part overview of the space on this site. Today though I'd like to set aside the discussion about nested cross-domain iframes, how many seconds are enough, and so on.
Instead I want to explain why viewability is important, and why it will eventually be good for everyone in the advertising value chain. I firmly believe that 1 million viewable impressions are worth a great deal more than 2 million impressions of which 50% get seen on average. That might sound strange, but it's based on my real-world experience of the way brands make decisions.
Sure the tech is confusing and it's hard to know whose iframe-busting miracle solution to buy into, but I've heard many other nasty things said about ad viewability lately. Things like: "A tax on the ecosystem" or "Just another way for brands to squeeze publishers," even "Another metric, when we have too many already." I disagree.
Let's start with the uncontroversial. The point of advertising is to make people think or act differently. That happens when we get the right ads in front of the right people at the right time. If we do, we expect to see measurable change. Based on that measurement we refine our message and our investment strategy.
Obviously ads need to be seen for them to work. Assuming they are good ads, those that get seen more often will work better. Everyone agrees: Viewability is a good thing. What many don't agree on is the value of its specific measurement. Critics say the metrics are redundant. In the end, the argument goes, effective ads will deliver results, and budgets will follow. The extent to which ads get seen is wrapped up in that effectiveness along with a bunch of other dimensions like targeting, creative, and the rest. We don't need to grease the palm of the ad viewability man, when we have the Invisible Hand to guide us.
This would be fine indeed if measurement were easy and quick. It's not. Today most digital marketers rely on metrics that include some sort of statistical error. Once you accept that last-click isn't telling you the whole truth, you're suddenly in a probabilistic measurement world and you need a model. The success of any model is predicated on the data you feed it. Algorithmic attribution, Attitudinal surveys, Incrementality experiments, Panel-based measures – these all rely on adequate samples and variables of adequate power to help us make decisions. Until those models have given us an answer with a degree of statistical confidence we're happy with, we continue to invest, aware that some of our budget is less well spent. We all know the quote attributed to John Wanamaker: "I know half of my marketing budget is wasted, I just don't know which half".
Some of the most valuable data, then, is that which accelerates measurement and with it investment optimization. If I can tell which half is wasted in half the time, that's going transform my business. The very best such data is a salient variable that helps you split wheat from chaff more accurately and quickly. Far from being inundated, marketers are endlessly seeking those variables among a soup of video completion rates, rich media engagement rates, search uplift, and small survey samples. What could be more salient than an indication of what ads were seen at all? Here's a datapoint that is close to free and highly predictive. I'd think very hard before turning it down to save 1% on my media plan.
Unseen impressions are noise. They dilute the impact of our advertising and the power of our models. Worse, they have a real cost – measured in bandwidth and CPU, page load times, privacy and data collection/leakage risk, data storage for everyone and so on. This cost is paid by brands. Brands who measure their return on investment by dividing results by spend. If we can withdraw those impressions, we'll get more impact for the same budget. Thus, fifty viewable impressions are worth more to an advertiser than 100 impressions of which 50% are seen. Not only do they deliver the same lift, you'll detect it faster, optimize sooner and spend less money on ad serving.
Less waste is good. Good for brands and consumers, but in the long run good for everyone in our industry. Smart advertisers will pay more for placements that deliver more. If we can pay more for fewer ads, that's less consumer intrusion to fund the same content. That means more receptive audiences, better results for advertisers, more elegant content earning the same or greater yield, and fewer good ads having to cross-subsidize bad ones.
This might sound idealistic, but it isn't entirely without precedent. Most brand plans still get reviewed at a placement level, and position above the fold is hugely important to marketers. Impressions that are guaranteed (position, pacing, frequency) trade for a disproportionately high premium for all the same reasons.
"Ok, but I've got a finely-tuned last click based DR machine, so what do I care?" If you really place no value on people seeing your ads without clicking on them, then all this is moot. The truth is though, there aren't many cases where clickers are 100% incremental or view-based conversions are 100% incidental. Your measurement plan should include testing your Retargeting for incrementality almost above any other channel – and that means probabilistic models, and understanding the value of ad exposure. I'm not sure there is such a thing as a finely-tuned last click based DR machine.
One last hitch. If you want a really powerful model, you're going to need your viewability data at the impression level. We can prove the relationship between ad viewability and brand lift; it shows up in the numbers just as common sense would have it. But because viewability typically gets reported back in aggregates, we have a hard time knowing which individual impressions were actually seen and working that data into our models. This is likely to be a challenge until the ad serving companies catch up to the viewability leaders, or the viewability leaders start sharing impression-level data in a convenient form. In the end, my money is on the ad servers; I'm hoping to see "seconds in-view" showing up in impression logs.
Getting to viewability nirvana relies on suppliers and buyers of ad inventory alike asking the question and offering up the data. Site designers and brands will need to ask these questions of everyone in between to get viewability on the agenda. Granted - in the near-term this probably might include some pain – particularly for those who are compensated on a CPM-like basis. In the long run, it is a step toward better media experiences, at the expense of the cookie stuffers, the data leeches and the ad stackers.