Debunking viewability’s big myths

Viewability, the industry’s latest bugbear, is a complex topic that’s changing the way publishers measure and price their inventory. So understandably, it has created its share of controversies and misconceptions.

Viewability, on face the face of it, is a no-brainer: An ad, no matter how attention-grabbing, can’t be effective unless someone sees it. But buying and selling on viewability, which comes with its own set of measurement hurdles, has proven to be far more contentious — and has inspired a long list of myths about the concept. Here are five of them.

Myth: The most viewable ads are above-the-fold.
Conventional wisdom about ad placements, much of which was borrowed from newspapers, suggested that if you want someone to see your ads, then you should place them above-the-fold, above even the site’s logo. But when it comes to viewability, the reality is more complicated. When readers click over to a site, they almost always immediately scroll down, often before the ads at the top of the page finish loading. Old ways of thinking about page design just don’t apply.

Myth: Viewable ads are ads that were actually viewed.
As the word itself suggests, viewability refers to an ad’s ability to be seen, not whether it was actually viewed. It’s a subtle, but important distinction but one that’s often confused. “It doesn’t even mean people really saw it,” said Kiril Tsemekhman, chief data officer at Integral Ad Science. “If you ask them if they ‘saw’ an ad, 99 percent of people still answer no, even though they actually did.”

Myth: Viewability is easier to measure on mobile.
The idea that mobile ads are more viewable makes intuitive sense. After all, ads on smaller screens take up more real estate, percentage-wise, than those on desktop. The problem is that mobile usage typically involves a lot of fast scrolling and swiping, which means that ads are loading long after users have moved past them.

And then there are the measurement problems. “Mobile is a very different platform in general and existing measurement technologies are unproven in mobile,” said David Kurtz, svp of product strategy at Opera Mediaworks. “More importantly, the majority of user activity is going on in-app, which is a very different environment than even mobile Web, and existing measurement technologies are even more unproven there.”

Myth: Nonviewable impressions are fraud.
The flood of nonhuman traffic and the viewability push are related issues that have emerged in parallel, so it’s not surprising that the two are often conflated. But they’re only vaguely related. While both are often thrown in the “wasted delivery” bucket, fraudulent impressions are those that a human, under no circumstances, actually saw. Nonviewable impressions, in contrast, are those that can’t be seen due to limitations in page design or ad rendering.

“These are two separate things that compound on top of each other, so they need to be dealt with with different tactics and buying behaviors,” said Genesis Media CEO Mark Yackanich “Fraud is something that will never go away from the ecosystem, but we can help eliminate some of these viewability issues.”

Myth: 100 percent viewability is a reasonable expectation.
One hundred percent viewability sounds great on paper, particularly to those on the buy side. “An ad that’s not seen is not worth less, it’s worth zero. Zero,” as Ari Bluman, GroupM’s chief digital investment officer said in February. Agencies have used this thinking to both squeeze publishers on non-viewable inventory and push back on publishers’ claims that viewable inventory should be priced a premium.

But while viewability affects the entire industry, publishers are on the hook for addressing it. Group M said in November that not only would it demand 100 percent viewability from its partners, even though the agreed industry benchmark was 70 percent. “Striving for 100 percent viewability only makes sense if a brand’s business goals are simply to have their ads seen,”‎said Mike Margolin, director of audience strategy at RPA. “The fact is that some media partners with average viewability rates drive excellent conversion rates. And vice versa.”

In other words, expectations outpace reality. Some agencies may want 100 percent viewability, but others realize that that’s a pipe dream. “Because of the way websites are designed, 100 percent viewability just isn’t attainable,” said Barry Lowenthal, president of The Media Kitchen.

More in Media

Teads’ M&A rumors are firming up with a deal to merge with Outbrain

The latest installment of ad tech M&A activity is leaving some industry folks surprised.

Publishers’ Privacy Sandbox pauses settle into a deep freeze following reports of poor performance

Publishers aren’t ready to press play yet on dedicated Privacy Sandbox tests.