Integral’s in-app viewability solution hinges on the use of MRAID, the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s standard for programmatic mobile rich media creative, in order to function properly. The solution is not yet accredited by the MRC, but Integral is seeking its stamp of approval. At the moment, Moat is the only vendor accredited for mobile viewability. That will certainly change when the MRC comes out with its official mobile viewability standard.
MRAID was originally developed by the IAB to make sure mobile rich media ads, which include elements like video and animation, could run successfully across all environments. When an MRAID tag is pinged, it responds with a binary answer – either “I am in-view” or “I am not in-view” – which acts as a signal to the piece of mobile rich media creative to start playing.
Integral hooks into that functionality through software development kits to measure viewability within in-app environments. A lot of publishers and most of the major SDKs, including MoPub, Google and Millennial Media, are MRAID-compliant, but there isn’t necessarily consistency in how the container is deployed.
“The overarching challenge with the MRAID standard is that it’s just a PDF document on the IAB’s website, and anyone can download that and build an MRAID SDK,” said Jason Cooper, general manager of mobile at Integral Ad Science. “But you would be building it based on your interpretation of the guidelines.”
That could result in “idiosyncrasies and slightly different behaviors” because “different developers have different interpretations of the document,” Cooper said.
The IAB Tech Lab did release a quality assurance testing tool for MRAID in January, but there’s no requirement to use it.
Then there’s the added complication that the current iteration of MRAID (MRAID 2) wasn’t developed to support viewability as defined by the MRC – 50% of pixels in view for one second for display and two seconds for video. Version 3 of MRAID, which is in the process of being finalized, will support those time and area components, said Cooper, a member of the IAB’s MRAID Working Group.
From GroupM’s perspective, though, MRAID as its stands isn’t “acceptable” for in-app viewability because it doesn’t use “active technology” to determine whether an ad is viewable in the browser window of a device, Barone said. Rather, it just relies on a signal being passed by the publisher.
It’s also true that not all mobile inventory is coded in MRAID, which “very possibly makes it blind in certain cases if there are certain apps or publishers not using it,” said Barone.
Another issue: SDKs, although they’re the preferred method, present their own complication.
“The code needs to be small and efficient so it doesn’t bloat the app and take up too much space on mobile,” said Tom Grey, a product manager at PubMatic. “Clearly, app developers are not keen to add more weight to their apps, so very few apps have the code embedded.”
And then there’s what Grey called “self-selection” going on.
“Some app developers are trying to game the system and will not install code to track viewability,” he said. “They have no incentive to police themselves since they are pursuing fraud.”
Integral’s offering also tries to determine whether a user is in-app or on the mobile web, Cooper said, but it remains an “inexact science.” Although the IAS technology does what it can to make that distinction, in the cases where it can’t – if the content is displayed in-app using a webview, for example – the measurement can default to the mobile web, which impacts reporting.
The playing field is also constantly shifting, sometimes subtly, as when an SDK like MoPub rolls out an update, which happens roughly every six to eight weeks, and sometimes tectonically, as when Apple makes one of its more significant annual updates.
“There’s no public conversation about this,” Cooper said. “They’re Apple so they do it and then the industry has to scramble for a few weeks to try and overcome it.”
All of that leaves publishers in a bit of a pickle. The industry is turning its attention to mobile, but properly forecasting and optimizing for viewability still feels “impossible,” said Brian Fitzgerald, CEO of Evolve Media, which happens to use Moat as its viewability vendor.
“Each client picks their own vendor [and] if it doesn’t match with yours, for example IAS vs. Moat, then there will certainly be discrepancies,” Fitzgerald said. “We can’t know what those discrepancies will be at the time of forecasting.”
To try and address that concern, GroupM, for one, has whittled its preferred verification vendor list down to three, one of which is Integral Ad Science, Barone said.
But the larger issue in the ecosystem is that clients, agencies and, in particular, vendors, “aren’t incented to try and fix the problems” or solve for viewability, Fitzgerald said.
“If there is one unified viewability vendor of record, like Nielsen for TV, then there is an even playing field and all players can understand the rules of the game; we are all judged equally,” he said. “Verification vendors have a business because there is a problem ‘they can help detect.’ Verification vendors stay in business, grow and become profitable by finding problems.”
PubMatic President Kirk McDonald has heard a similar sentiment expressed by other publishers. Advertisers and agencies make their demands and the burden is generally on the publisher to make good on any discrepancies.
“The one writing the check to cover that gap in one way, shape or form is the publisher,” McDonald said. “At this point, a lot of publishers do seem to feel that there is more promise than deliver when it comes to vendors.”
In essence, even some of the vocabulary is broken, said Barone.
“In my mind, we’ve gotten to the point where we need a different word other than ‘discrepancy’ because a discrepancy is defined as two people counting the same thing and coming up with different answers,” he said. “But in this business, when buyers and sellers talk about discrepancies, what they’re actually saying is, ‘My guy is counting one way and your guy is counting another way.’”
But all of the headaches are part of a necessary growing process, said Barone, even if that process is often painful or uncomfortable.
“We’re changing the way the industry has been working for the last 15 years, so it’s a big deal and hopefully it’s a one-time disruption,” he said. “Moving away from the ad server count is a major sea change. It’s worth the time and effort to get it right.”