Viewability: if they can’t see it, did it happen?

Posted by IAB Australia On June 18, 2014

There’s little point in spending money on advertising that people can’t watch. Yet data from the US shows as much as half of all ads served are not viewable.’s Mitch Waters explains why pre-bid data is needed to ensure advertisers are seen and heard.

We all know the philosophical question, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” We can’t say for sure. Today’s equivalent is in advertising: if an ad is served and nobody saw it, was it actually there?

Publishers, of course, say ‘yes’ and expect their cut for the appearance. Advertisers take them on their word and cough up, but they probably don’t feel happy about not knowing what the impact, if any, of their ad placement.

This is what’s at the crux of the viewability debate. What’s to say an ad isn’t pushed to the bottom of a very long page, or isn’t served in a one-by-one pixel, not even giving it a chance to be seen?

One way a buyer can attempt to see how their ads are being positioned is by drawing assumptions based on performance. If a site delivers badly for video plays, then perhaps the ad isn’t seen.

The IAB Australia’s March 2014 discussion paper on digital audience measurement cites data from the US Media Ratings Council, which shows the discrepancy in reporting data between viewability vendors can exceed 50 percent.

That’s, in part, why the IAB is setting standards around what is classified as ‘viewable’ in video. In the US, 50 percent of a video player must be in a viewable portion of the active tab for at least two seconds under a standard that kicks in on July 1. It’s very likely a similar definition will apply here sometime soon.

The new standard is a big step forward, but will it change behaviour? A campaign report after-the-fact may tell you which placements failed to match up, but your ads have still been served — just not seen. They might influence how you book future ads, but what if other inventory fails to meet the standard? Obviously, nothing in the online world ever stays the same. You are dealing with a movable feast.

That’s why, to be truly effective, the viewability technology used needs to be applied in real-time. Sites that appear in a schedule can have multiple pages with video players – some of these may be viewable, others not. A real-time understanding means you have the greatest chance of serving content that will be seen by your audience.

It’s the difference – and it’s a big difference – between including viewability as a pre-bid measure rather than a post-impression tracking mechanism. Reporting on what’s happened is one thing, but this is a digital industry, remember. We’re all about real-time activity. The moment we start talking about analysing historic data for reporting purposes, we’re re-entering a batch process world. Next we’ll be unpacking the punch cards and feeding them into an old IBM reader. The real-time approach is to change behaviour before it happens, based on the best information available at the time. It means you bid for something that you know to be real.

This is particularly pertinent in Australia where we are crying out for video content. Getting enough inventory over a campaign period can be a challenge, to put it mildly. You don’t want to waste time serving advertising that goes unseen, particularly if a second or two later the same user could be on a page where you could have had the desired impact.

That’s why a similar standard needs to be applied here and platforms need to be open to third-party verification services that can vouch that the standard has been met. Publishers and planners who ignore it risk being left out in the cold.

And successful agencies will see the real benefit will come from pre-bid data on viewability. There’s no point to serving content that experiences a lot of misses. You’ll find yourself in a forest of post-impression analysis.

To return to the original analogy, when a tree falls you want it to have impact. And that’s what clients want, too. There’s no chance of that if people can’t even see what they’re dishing out.

This article previoulsy appeared on Ad News. 

IAB Australia

IAB Australia is the peak trade association for online advertising in Australia. As one of over 43 IAB offices globally and with a rapidly growing membership, the role of the IAB is to support sustainable and diverse investment in digital advertising across all platforms in Australia.