It’s Time to Revisit the Viewability Debate

By Dillon Tedesco, CRO at Octopus Interactive

When did expectations become so low for advertisers? Brands knowingly spend billions of dollars on fraudulent impressions and continue going back to the same well as if the water isn’t contaminated. Frequency abuse, no verification, questionable measurement practices, and a slew of other challenges continue to plague the industry. As we head into 2022, standards in digital video advertising seemingly couldn’t be lower and while many of the above are complex issues to solve, one seems to be low-hanging fruit – the issue of viewability.

What are we talking about when we talk about “viewability” in digital video advertising?  Digiday gives this helpful explanation: “Viewability is an online advertising metric that aims to track only impressions that can actually be seen by users. For example, if an ad is loaded at the bottom of a webpage but a user doesn’t scroll down far enough to see it, that impression would not be deemed viewable. Viewability is designed to let advertisers pay only for the ads that users could possibly see.”

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In an attempt to standardize and optimize the performance of digital video, the Media Ratings Council has established standards for viewability. Although they’ve changed with debate and technology over the years, the problem remains that the current viewability standards from the MRC leave a lot to be desired: At least 50% of an ad must be in view for one second for video ads to be considered viewable. It’s laughable to receive RFP after RFP with a requirement of at least 70% viewability. It’s as if a brand is saying that the remaining 30% of their advertisement, likely the part with the brand message, doesn’t matter.

Vendors have developed various technologies to determine whether impressions meet the MRC criteria. The fact that methods vary for measuring viewability has meant that it’s been a moving target for advertisers and publishers who want a more concrete way of measuring and pricing effectiveness.

 The growing scale of digital advertising during the past decade has meant that very soft viewability standards and numbers could still drive meaningful results, because costs were low and audiences were growing all the time. With recent privacy developments, device proliferation and audience fragmentation, however, those viewability standards aren’t going to cut it anymore.

The entire system of standardizing and measuring viewability is incredibly inefficient, but entrenched interests have kept it in place. Publishers, for example, aren’t likely to push back on soft viewability standards, because they financially benefit from them. Softer standards mean that more ads from more advertisers get monetized, and that substantially strengthens revenue for both responsible publishers and bad actors.

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Viewability measurement providers are likewise not incentivized to push back on the current system. Not only are viewability measurement providers most likely to be employed by publishers and agencies, they’ve built businesses on the complacency of all parties.This includes advertisers themselves, who have grown accustomed to certain price points and performance models.

The situation begs the question, does anyone even really care? Are advertisers and agencies willing to continue enabling publishers to inflate their ad loads via bare minimums in viewability standards, which in turn lowers cost and increases demand for the inventory – as low quality as it may be? It’s a vicious cycle with no end in sight.

As an industry, it’s incumbent on us to battle inefficiencies and provide value to the stakeholders in the advertising chain, from agencies and publishers to viewers and consumers. Any methods for measuring performance that don’t take all of those parties into account with honesty and precision is destined to be left by the wayside in the march of progress.

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