"Data-Driven Thinking" is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.
Today’s column is written by Brian d’Alessandro, senior vice president of digital intelligence at Dstillery.
Despite their allure, buy-side guarantees of 100% ad viewability will not solve our industry’s ad viewability problem.
I believe these guarantees might end up being more of a distraction – one that delays real progress on the issue, rather than solving anything.
Improving ad viewability is a collective responsibility, requiring participation by both the buy and sell sides of the business. An effective and sustainable solution will be one that aligns the incentives of all parties involved.
If there was an easy solution, we’d all be aware of it by now. Although we may not solve the problem immediately, there are steps we can take as an industry to improve the situation.
100% Viewability Guarantees Won’t Solve The Problem
Anybody buying ads via RTB should understand that viewability of a specific ad impression is not something that can be guaranteed upfront.
This is a problem that publishers face, even though they control the ad placement. Even for an above-the-fold leaderboard ad, a user might bounce or navigate away from a page before the impression fully loads. This is an element of friction we’ll likely always have to accommodate.
On the buy side, the control of viewability is an order of magnitude more difficult. Most buy-side operators use third-party viewability averages as a pre-bid mechanism for viewability control. This often translates to an in-view average of a given ad slot on a particular publisher’s page, with no distinction between above- or below-the-fold inventory. At best, the buy side can optimize toward a publisher’s average viewability rate, but not 100% viewability.
The implication of the buy-side restriction is that viewability guarantees are really just a make-good promise. There are two problems with this situation.
The first is that someone must pay for the make-good impressions. For example, if a campaign achieves only 60% viewability, the ad buyer will have to pay for additional impressions until the net total of viewed impressions have been met. There are already cases where the client will be charged a premium for the viewability guarantee, which is just a trick for the buy-side vendor to achieve its target CPM while looking better by offering the guarantee.
This situation might even favor the buy-side vendor due to the impact of conversion reporting. If the buyer has to serve twice the impressions to reach a net viewed guarantee, it may produce up to twice as many last-touch conversions, allowing the vendor to show better results using a bit of sleight of hand. This perverse outcome doesn’t favor the client.
The second reason why guarantees aren’t sustainable is because they don’t create incentives for publishers to fix the underlying issue. Some of the main causes of poor viewability rates include below-the-fold ad slots and ad units that auto refresh when a particular browser tab is not in view. Sometimes, the only way a business will change its ways is if inaction hurts its bottom line. Publishers create tremendous value to the public, and they have every right to profit from it. But buyers should not tolerate publishers that intentionally profit off of false pretense, such as pretending that an ad is being displayed to a person when it likely isn’t.
We can fix viewability problems in a sustainable way if we don’t encourage publishers to profit from selling ad units with poor viewability rates. This will bring us closer to a discussion on better solutions.
We need to structure solutions that incentivize publishers to make ad inventory more likely to be viewed. We don’t want to enforce punitive measures. On the contrary, we should reward behavior that aligns the interests of ad buyers and sellers.
A good starting point would be better transparency around ad placements. A few supply-side platforms (SSP) already offer above- and below-the-fold indicators. This seems like an obvious request to make, but it’s not the default for most SSPs, so it isn’t quite so obvious to everyone.
With better transparency, the industry will price viewability in a more organic and market-driven way. Publishers should expect prices to rise for inventory with higher viewability rates, and likewise, prices will drop for less-viewed inventory. Publishers can then optimize their own sites according to this market-driven distribution of prices. In this scenario, brands might even expect lower viewability if they are paying a fraction of the original price.
Viewability is not just a supply-side issue. Brands and agencies share a mutual responsibility to incentivize their buy-side partners to not chase cheaper, below-the-fold inventory. The mechanism for this is multitouch attribution. Any brand that optimizes using a last-touch conversion metric is implicitly asking their buy-side partners to chase the last ad rendered on a page, at a high frequency to boot. Proper attribution and causal lift measurement of a campaign will ultimately weed out the vendors whose best tactic is stuffing cookies.
Overall, we all want a better environment for monetizing publishers and running effective advertising campaigns. Viewability guarantees treat the symptoms rather than the proverbial disease. The more we focus on guarantees, the longer it will take us to create an efficient and sustainable market for viewability.