Publishers grapple with viewability’s biggest issues

The era of viewability is here —  and it’s confusing.

While advertisers and agencies are pushing viewability as a way for them to pay only for the impressions that people actually see, the realities of the metric still lag behind the expectations. Some publishers are threatened by it, others frustrated by it, and still others confused by its implications.  And in the background lurk the hordes of ad tech vendors locked in a landgrab for a stake in measuring the new metric.

“Viewability is a good thing for quality publishers,” said Brian Fitzgerald, president of Evolve Media. “For too long publishers have gamed the system as they’ve seen declines in organic inventory and tried to compensate by adding more ads to the page — regardless of whether those ads are seen,” he said.

Evolve Media is one of the many publishers still grappling with questions of how the rise of viewability will impact their businesses. Here are some of their bigger concerns.

Taking a hit on sellable impressions
Probably the biggest adjustment for publishers in the viewability era is reality that they’ll be serving fewer impressions via the same pages, which in turn means they’ll be making less money per page. It’s a familiar refrain in online publishing these days, which is why many publishers are still wary of the short-term effects of viewability’s widespread adoption.

But viewability can also work in publishers’ favor, at least in theory. If there are fewer, more valuable viewable ads, publishers can pump up the CPMs on their viewable inventory to compensate for the hit they take on their overall impressions.

Time Inc. has developed an interesting engineering fix for this. By equipping the latest and Fortune redesigns with an infinite scrolling feature, the sites can pursue what Time Inc. group publisher Jed Hartman calls the “predictable viewability” model. By serving readers ads in article feeds as they scroll, Time Inc. both boosts the number of impressions they serve and the overall viewability of those impressions.

Multiple vendors, multiple measurement methodologies
Viewability has a major vendor problem. While the Media Research Council has settled on the official definition of viewable ad (50 percent in view for one second), it hasn’t yet settled on a single way to determine viewability itself, leaving the industry without uniform measurement methodology.

RealVu, one of the MRC’s 11 accredited vendors, for example,  measures viewability via “page geometry”, which computes viewability by looking at ad size and page placement., another accredited vendor, does so via “browser optimization”, which monitors browser processes to determine if an ad has been viewed. Ironically, having multiple vendors pushing their own standards only creates more standards, not fewer.

“How can you hope to create an acceptable, dependable, unified standard if there are so many different ways of approaching measurement and validation?” Fitzgerald said.

Regardless of the method, the effect is the same: Publishers often get completely different viewability metrics based on which vendor is looking at their pages. That makes it impossible for them to properly design their sites to compensate for the different scores. And while the MRC is working to fix this problem, the solution isn’t there yet.

“All these companies are very reputable and sophisticated,” said Hartman. “But the measurement is still relatively new. So a lot of it’s getting them in sync with each other.”

One vendor, multiple viewability scores
There are issues even within vendor’s themselves. Both Hartman and Fitzgerald pointed to situations where measuring the same ad unit on multiple pages returned completely different viewability scores. While such discrepancies are a natural part of ironing out the kinks in a new measurement metric, vendors are doing so behind closed doors. Thus, from the publishers’ perspective, viewability methodology has become a black box: publishers see what comes out, but have limited insight into how it works.

Getting hammered on price by agencies
All of these discrepancies in measurement only create greater pricing pressures for publishers. Agencies, which tend to want more value for less cash, are tempted to both flock towards whatever ad solution offers them the most favorable pricing and refuse to work with publishers that refuse to play along. To complicate things further, agencies also often make publishers foot the vendor bill for measuring the viewability of their sites.

“If publishers can’t feel confident that they can get a handle on viewability, then you’re just going to have this issue of constant pushback from publisher to agency and publisher to brand,” Fitzgerald said.

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