Does ‘Viewability’ Need A Health Check?

by Nick King Exponential

What does ‘viewability’ mean today and is it still a useful metric for advertisiers? Could an over-emphasis on viewability actually be holding some campaigns back? Here, Nick King of Exponential looks at the evolving role of viewability in making online media buying decisions.

Back in 2001, Manchester United made the controversial decision to sell popular central defender Jaap Stam, despite the club achieving considerable success in the preceding years. Man United’s analysts defended the decision by pointing to data which showed that Stam made considerably fewer tackles than his colleagues in defence.

However, when the team started to leak goals in the following months it became clear that Stam’s contribution had been much more than simply making tackles. Stam got himself into the right positions to stop his opponents gaining possession, reducing his need to tackle anyone.

The analysts got it wrong because they measured the wrong thing – or, to be more accurate, they placed too much emphasis on the wrong metric in isolation from all others.

As a digital advertising professional, I think a similar thing has happened in how advertisers are prioritising ‘viewability’ as a metric (particularly for digital media) and failing to view it alongside other metrics, such as engagement and sales, to give a fuller picture.

When’s A View Not A View?

Ensuring your advertising is actually seen is a logical expectation in marketing, which goes some way to explaining the way ‘viewability’ has been regarded by digital advertisers over the past decade or so.

At first, viewability wasn’t seen as important as everyone assumed that their online ads were being seen. Then people realised they weren’t being seen and suddenly viewability became a key priority with a huge amount of focus on it. Which, to me, is puzzling on a number of levels.

For one thing, the accepted industry standards of what counts as a ‘viewed’ online display ad is pretty ridiculous. The Media Ratings Council definition, for example, is that 50 per cent of the ad’s pixels are viewable onscreen for one second. The expectation rises to two seconds for a video ad.

Now to anyone inside or outside the industry, that doesn’t sound like a good deal. We need to draw a line and change how we think about and use viewability as a metric.

Another interesting thing to note is that other types of media aren’t judged by the same standard as digital media in terms of viewability. For example, we know that during the last World Cup over 25 million people were watching England’s final games, making the ad breaks surrounding the coverage extremely valuable.

However, we also know that during half-time and at full-time, the demand for water and electricity shot up massively, suggesting that a huge percentage of the gathered audience were no longer ‘viewing’ the ads as they were busy making a cup of tea!

Likewise, advertisers who buy billboard space outside a train station seem willing to accept that many commuters will walk past staring at the ground or with their head in the clouds and never see their ad. Again, viewability is not regarded as a huge priority.

The point here is that just because a digital campaign may be only, say, 70 per cent viewable, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value. It may well generate a high percentage of conversions compared to other more viewable sites, but you’ll never know if you reject it on the basis of viewability alone.

New Solutions

As a result of the factors outlined above, many advertising clients and vendors have begun to create their own definitions and criteria around what counts as ‘viewable’.

For example, my own company Exponential has created our unique VDX Connect product, where customers are only charged for a viewed ad, with ‘viewed’ in this instance meaning the full ad for five seconds for mobile, full ad for 10 seconds on desktop, and the full ad for 15 seconds for video content.

All vendors should be offering buying solutions that offer viewability as a built-in guarantee. This small change in the industry will give advertisers the chance to move beyond discussions of viewability and start to have higher expectations of their marketing activity.

Nick will be speaking about whether ‘viewability’ needs a health check at our Digital Marketing Summit on Thursday 25 October. For more information regarding the event you can view the full agenda here.