Another mobile headache for publishers: viewability

There’s a sea change in how digital advertising is being sold, with advertisers and their agencies demanding that ads be viewable by humans without having to pay more. But as bad as the battle is as it plays out over desktop ads, those in the trenches say it’s only going to get worse when attention shifts to mobile devices.

The conventional wisdom is that because screen sizes are smaller, mobile ads are more likely to be in view. A study from ad management company Sizmek says as much.

Viewability vendors argue otherwise, though. According to Moat, 50.5 percent of display ads on publisher sites it measures were viewable in the fourth quarter. But on mobile, that figure declined to 44.3 percent. Similarly, Integral Ad Science has found Web viewability rates average about 50 percent on mobile (with programmatically-sold ads measuring much lower than those sold direct) versus 57 percent on desktop.

“There’s a huge misperception around mobile that because it’s mobile, somehow it’s viewable,” said Jonah Goodhart, CEO and co-founder of Moat.

There are various explanations as to why. Mobile devices encourage fast scrolling and swiping, and it’s common behavior for users to scroll past ads before the ads have had time to load. Some readers don’t even get to the ads that are further down an article page. So-called adhesive units on mobile — ads that “stick” to the bottom of the screen as the user scrolls — tend to be more viewable, but they’re not always used.

Another problem is with the outlier publisher sites that aren’t optimized for mobile devices: when their pages are shrunk down for the mobile screen, some ads won’t be seen because they’re out of the user’s view.

That’s a big problem given the decisive shift to mobile. Time spent on mobiles, at 2 hours and 51 minutes, outpaced that of desktop (2 hours, 12 minutes) in 2014. And in 2016, mobile ad spending is on track to surpass desktop.

A big reason the mobile viewability issue has been a sleeping giant is that the viewability standards that the Media Ratings Council issued last year were specific to desktop devices. David Gunzerath, svp, associate director at the MRC, said that’s because the council recognized that mobile behaviors (scrolling and swiping) are different from desktop.

“We think the way people interact with content on mobile is different and should be part of our consideration in establishing what constitutes viewability of an ad,” Gunzerath said. Also, the technology is different. Flash technology that’s used to measure viewability on desktop isn’t available on iOS devices, which may lead to undercounting of ads on mobile devices.

There also are differences between mobile apps and the Web. Integral Ad Science says across in-app ads, viewability is 81 percent compared to about 50 percent on the Web, said Jason Cooper, GM of mobile. “With mobile apps, we’re right at the early days of measuring viewability,” Cooper said.

Publishers have been able to get away with not meeting mobile viewability requirements because of the technical challenges inherent in measurement, but agencies are starting to focus on it.

“Viewability and fraud are two of the most pressing issues the industry is facing, as it affects the integrity of the industry,” said Michael Lampert, svp of media and account management at digital agency 360i. “There are a lot of numbers floating around. It’s not about which channel is best, but that they both need to get better. The issue of mobile supply just put this on the front burner because low quality is no quality.”

The MRC plans to issue a statement as early as this week providing interim guidelines for how mobile viewability should be measured in advance of having permanent guidelines by the end of the year, and it’s open to considering the difference in environment in setting mobile standards. Facebook has already taken a stance, saying it considers ads viewable as soon as they appear on a screen, which is lower than the MRC’s definition that says 50 percent of an ad has to be viewable for at least one second to be counted as viewable.

So for now, publishers are trying to get ahead of the issue by using units that are designed for mobile viewability. For buyers, in-app mobile video formats such as pre-roll, interstitial, value-exchange video and native video are some of the most viewable (as well as prominent) ad placements, said David Kurtz, svp of product strategy at Opera Mediaworks.

“Mobile ads can’t be placed on the peripheral,” said Mark Howard, chief revenue officer at Forbes. “They are in-line with the content and in some cases are sticky at the top or bottom of the page. For the in-line ads, when an engaged user is scrolling down the page, the ads fit nicely in the body of the page ensuring they are viewed.”

If there’s a bright side to this, it’s mobile video. On desktop, video ads are 51 percent viewable, but on mobile, it’s closer to 70 percent, according to Moat. When you’re served a video ad on desktop, you can click to another tab while the ad plays. You can’t do that on mobile and still get to the content, Goodhart explained.

“On mobile, for the most part, if a video ad played through, it’s more likely to be viewable,” he said.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.