From the Unintended Consequences Dept: Viewability mandates cause more ad clutter

Ask any marketer or agency their position on viewability, you can be sure they’ll endorse it. After all, who in their right mind could be against ads that are paid for should have the opportunity to be viewed by a human?

Easy: Those who believe the digital media experience is too often horrible, driving people to ad blocking, and worry strict viewability standards will only create a cascading effect of more ads, more intrusion and more consumer antipathy to digital advertising. The reason is simple: The most intrusive of ads are usually the most viewable. Want to make sure an ad is viewable? Serve a full-screen pop-up ad.

“We are seeing more publishing sites with aggressive advertising layouts trying to meet the [viewable] thresholds that are being requested,” said Marc Goldberg, CEO of brand-safety firm Trust Metrics. “These examples end up for users as the reason to ad block.”

An analysis from mobile ad tech company Kargo found that agencies request its pop-ups and interstitials about 40 percent more often when they’re buying on viewability compared to a CPM basis. Harry Kargman, founder and CEO of Kargo, said that these formats are attractive because they tend to be scored as 100 percent viewable, even though Kargo’s eye-tracking studies show that user attention is focused toward finding a way to close the ad.

“I don’t fault media buyers to push for viewability, it is very logical,” said Neil Vogel, CEO of “But the publisher responses to it haven’t been great.”

Neil McKinnon, head of marketing at programmatic agency Infectious Media, said that publishers with intrusive ads — even premium publishers — are simply doing what they have to do to be profitable in an environment where buyers insist on high viewability: Ads refresh on ESPN, The Guardian’s logo and navigation bar collapses before the ad in its header, and adhesive units on real-estate website Zoopla stick to the side of the screen as the user scrolls. Every one of these ad formats appeal to viewability at the cost of user experience.

“It is really hard to be 100 percent viewable and not have highly disruptive stuff,” said PopSugar CRO Geoff Schiller.

Goldberg said that buyers emphasizing viewability has in turn incentivized websites like The Buzz Tube, That’s Not Food, and Silly IMG to feature many ads at the top of the page. Their pages are littered with ads from Google AdSense and content-recommendation engines Taboola and Revcontent, but very little, if any, content separates the ads. The Buzz Tube was the only one of these websites with enough traffic to be detected by comScore, which said it had about 900,000 unique visitors last month. Its Facebook page, which is liked by about 150,000 people, mimics content farms by mixing in its own articles with viral content from other websites.

Although the websites offer a poor user experience, their ads count toward viewable impressions because the ads are not shown to bots or hidden in other windows. The video below shows how users experience brand ads on these websites.

“They score highly for viewability and then platforms with pre-bid viewability targeting end up buying this stuff like crazy because it hits the one KPI they’re looking for,” said Ken Van Every, senior business development manager at demand-side platform provider DataXu. “One-hundred percent viewability mandates from agencies are doing a lot of harm for this reason.”

Premium publishers like PopSugar and said that, on average, about 70 percent of their ads are measured as viewable by third-party measurement firms like Moat and comScore. But because websites like The Buzz Tube feature large ads with highly-visible placements, they can outscore premium publishers in viewability, even though their content is significantly inferior. So if an agency is insisting that at least 90 percent of ads must be viewable, it can inadvertently prioritize inventory from sites like The Buzz Tube over premium publishers.

Goldberg said that inventory from these websites sneaks into ad networks because networks are more concerned with weeding out bot traffic than in maintaining quality inventory. When viewability becomes the predominant thing that advertisers want to reach, the networks have further incentive to let quality slide if it can help them reach the KPI.

Kargman said that because “viewability is the new KPI of choice” it has become common for buyers to solely hone in on that one metric. But buyers should also research how long their ads are in-view and where people’s eyes move toward, he said.

Rachael Morris, optimization and insight director at Infectious Media, suggested that buyers concerned with viewability should combine it with other metrics like cost-per-acquisition, so that they are only spending on websites that drive conversions from their viewable ads.

“The main point is that it doesn’t make sense to use viewability as a standalone metric,” she said. “Ideally, we should always look at an actual change in behavior.”

Image via Creative Commons

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