View No Evil

Evolving Digital Media Viewability Standards Fall Short of True Accountability

In recent months, a healthy debate has engrossed digital media circles concerning the IAB’s evolving standards for viewability of paid media advertising. The IAB’s December release of the State of Viewability Transaction 2015, concluding that advertisers should require media vendors to guarantee that 70% of served impressions are actually viewable on the user’s screen, triggered the recent round of buzz. While publishers point to flaws in the economic sustainability of the guidance, others (notably the AAAA) have criticized it as a half-measure institutionalizing a 30% “vapor view” factor as legitimate marketing currency.

According to the guidelines, CPM-based media contracts should stipulate that advertisers receive a makegood in the form of additional viewable impressions for anything less than 70% viewability delivered.

The IAB statement offers the following helpful example:

“…a campaign delivers 10,000,000 Served Impressions; of those Served Impressions, 8,000,000 were Measurable; of the Measured impressions, 5,000,000 (62.5%) were Viewable. In this case, the publisher would need to deliver 600,000 additional Viewable Impressions to reach the 70% threshold and make good. The agency will be billed for 10,000,000 impressions assuming full make good.”

In support of the 70% threshold as compared with the aspirational goal of 100%, the IAB points out that it’s still common to see 30-40% variances in viewability measurement between platforms due to technological limitations. The statement is further weakened by its acknowledgment that many “high-impact placements” are still not measurable using today’s tools, and therefore posits that contracts should separate guaranteed impressions into two categories “Measured” and “Unmeasured”, and only “Measured” should be held to the 70% threshold. Ultimately, the IAB maintains that billing should continue to be based on total served impressions, provided the separation is transparent and the viewability guarantee is honored.

Should Advertisers Adopt the IAB Standard?

In November Google published “The Importance of Being Seen: Viewability Insights for Digital Marketers and Publishers”, concluding that 56.1% of impressions sold are not seen. By this standard, a 70% threshold represents an improvement to the average. Google also points out that a small number of publishers are serving most of the non-viewable impressions, and there are controllable best practices to optimize viewability (i.e. vertical position, ad size, placement above/below fold, depth of competition, etc).

We respect the efforts of the IAB to shift the industry’s focus toward viewable impressions, and we agree that the still-evolving technological landscape calls for interim, rather than absolute, standards in order to be taken seriously.

That said, while we recommend that viewable impressions be an important consideration, we see limited practical value in settling on a 70% threshold. When budgets are held to productivity goals and placements are measured and actively managed, 100% should be attainable, so the 70% guidelines can even provide an incentive to take the easy way out and settle for less than stellar placements. Publishers unwilling or unable to make a 100% commitment are then in a weakened negotiating position with respect to CPM.

On the other hand, for programmatic/network buys (shown by Integral Ad Science’s Q1 2015 Media Quality Report to generate decidedly lower average viewability than publisher direct placements), custom audience targeting and extraordinary cost efficiencies will in some cases offset the advantages of greater viewability.

In short, the IAB’s guidelines are helpful to improve accountability and minimize wasteful campaigns industry-wide, but limited in ambition and narrow in their practical application for performance-based campaigns.

We’ll continue to offer our comments on this topic as it develops….check in for updates here.

Brett Landry