Taking Issue With Viewable Impressions

Data-Driven Thinking“Data-Driven Thinking” is a column written by members of the media community and containing fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Mark Hughes, CEO of C3 Metrics.

At the worst possible time, the digital marketing measurement business is again showing inconsistencies. The issue this time is the matter of “viewable impressions,” and I’m taking issue with the information released last week by comScore. Whether we like it or not, Internet users are not seeing all served ads, and we need to find the most accurate way of painting this picture, which admittedly is not pretty.

Here’s the quick background. One of the key findings delivered last week by a comScore study of 12 big brands is that 31% of the 1.7 billion ad impressions sampled recently in its study were never in view. The issue is that comScore is taking 12 big brands with huge budgets, and then sampling them on premium sites only. It would be nice if real companies could buy, plan and measure media that way. But it’s not reality. It’s like calling Palo Alto, CA and Greenwich, CT a true representation of America. Not accurate, and  not projectable for the large majority of advertisers.

And Nielsen?  Nielsen just told Adexchanger in response to comScore’s data that visibility of ads only makes up 10-15% of the importance in digital advertising.  Come again?  If ads didn’t show on TV, but advertisers were charged for those ads–don’t you think there would be some immediate fire and brimstone meetings?

This is a good debate to have mind you. Impression data vs. ads seen is important to how we price and especially how we measure performance. Look at server-side data and you see a different, more realistic picture. The data found in our most recent C3 Labs report, indicates that click-through rates on banner ads may be 179% higher than reported for marketers who are not taking viewable impression data into account. C3 Metrics analyzed a subset of data across its client base in Q4 2011 to identify viewable impressions based on new industry standard. This included several billion ad impressions as well as third-party ad server data. Rather than focusing on the nagging notion that more than 30% of ads are never seen [we see that 68% of display ads are not seen, more detail below], this report reinforces the industry need for viewable impression data to deliver new insights, more accurate reporting and less wasted ad impressions.

Historically, all server requests recorded by ad servers have been deemed impressions.  However, the IAB, ANA and 4As have recently called for a “viewable impression” standard, which outlines that ads both fully load and enter into the viewable space on a consumer’s screen for at least one second.

The C3 Metrics Labs report found that 68% of all display ads served are never ultimately seen by consumers according to the viewable impression standard.  Of the ads that are not seen, 12% never fully load.  Because click-through rates are calculated based on ads that are actually seen, CTRs that do not take viewable impression data into account may be off by as much as 179%.

These numbers from C3 Metrics align with RealVu, the only ad server accredited by the Media Rating Council for a “viewable impression,” which has found that “up to 90% of ads on major networks never appear …. the best sites in the world only show a view rates of 75%.” [from Troy Tribe, President & COO, RealVu] Bottom line:  comScore’s 30% number is a continent away from RealVu and C3 Metrics.

I would like to see two actions result from this divergent discrepancy.  First, click-through rates must be calculated on impressions viewed, not server requests. Second, attribution modeling, which is critical to display success, must also incorporate the viewable impression standard, because view-through credit is entirely based on an actual view. As a result, CPMs for viewable impressions will justifiably rise, and unviewed impressions will no longer count in display ad performance reporting.

The viewable impression standards have arrived. There’s good news and bad news whenever a new standard is adopted, but the IAB, ANA, and 4As have pushed this standard, and ultimately more dollars will pour into digital advertising with new accountability that CMOs and CFOs are looking for.  Any agency failing to adopt the new standard might be optimizing with click-through rates off by 179%, and from attribution modeling standpoint, will have results off by 68%.

Follow C3 Metrics (@C3metrics) and AdExchanger.com (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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  1. Mark – great article. Every brand focused on super low view-through CPA campaigns opens the door for cookie bombing using the cheapest and least viewed impressions. It’s a pretty easy game to win as an optimizer but it doesn’t help the brand with their real goals – sales and branding. Viewable impressions and view length are key metrics that aren’t a standard… yet. One thing I’ve noticed is that while CTR is a pretty poor metric, there should be a minimum CTR required to prove that an add unit is actually being seen. If it has 0 clicks, it’s usually below the fold.

    Dave Katz
    Business Development

  2. Great article Mark. Not only do we need to start looking at viewable ads, but we need to get away from the idea that above the fold / below the fold is of critical importance. It matters far less where on the page the ad is, and far more if the ad is actually seen.

    I do wonder, however, if a more flexible definition of viewable ad may be required. For instance, on many screen resolutions a 160×600 will not render completely above the fold, making scrolling required to trigger a viewable ad impression. But if 80%+ of the ad is visible, might that be enough to achieve the desired impact on the user? Some A/B testing I’ve seen would indicate that it is.

  3. Love the article Mark. I’m really keen on seeing conversion data from viewable impression data too. This may or may not help to validate the post view conversion to clients. Not at all surprised by your below the fold stats, it’s something I suspected for a while.

  4. Good article Mark. We should definitely expect usage of “In-View” metrics to rise to the top of the priority list for most marketers in 2012. There definitely ought to be a standard too, considering the quoted estimates above range from 31% to 68%. I would hope to see a data driven approach to setting this standard. Through A/B testing (or some other approach to measuring ad effectiveness), we could understand the effect on conversion of different levels of “In-View” exposure. The “standard” should be set close to a level that maximizes ad-effectiveness while minimizing the strictness of the standard.

  5. Rick Monihan

    Great article. The viewable impression, when finally defined as a standard, will radically alter the marketplace. No longer will publishers have to feel the threat of low CPM deals which are offering no intinsic value, aside from a baseline price that is in reality costing advertisers far more than they know.

    It’s time to move forward on this issue. A standard of viewability makes above or below the fold an unnecessary construct. It offers an improved product for meshing online and TV CPMs. It may not eliminate clicks or CPA as buying tools, but it will contextualize both more effectively than the current ‘impression’.

    The primary item holding the industry back is defining ‘viewability’. I have no doubt we can come to terms on what makes an ad ‘viewable’, and when we do the industry will be better for it.

  6. Mark Hughes you are the man for speaking up about ad that do not appear.Realvu is the inventor of the viewable impression and is the only company in the U.S that is certified by the Media Rating Counsel to report on ads that appear in the viewable area of the browser screen for at least one second. There is a big difference between an ad space that is tracked and an actual ad that is rendered into the space in focus for at least one second. It is very important to be able to report on an actual ad that appears within the viewable area of the browser screen while in focus for at least one second in order to determine reach and frequency and to determine GRP’s. I suggest any advertiser who wants to explore using the viewable impression as a currency to buy Ads check with the Media Rating Counsel as to the credentials of companies that say they can actually track a viewable impression. To my knowledge there are no companies in the world today other than Realvu that tracks the viewable area of the browser screen and holds patents protecting this invention. http://WWW.realvu.comRemember and Ad that does not show up in the viewable area of the Browser Screen has no chance of selling a product or service.

  7. Mark, thanks for opening this discussion – your POV is really helpful. There’s clear momentum behind the concept of viewable impressions as highlighted by this and other initiatives like 3MS. However, I think the attribution issue you mention is only considered as an afterthought and I think that’s a shame.

  8. Mark thank you, good piece. Brand managers will be bullish on the adoption of the viewable impression.

    Processes & value: Sell-side will need to adapt inventory management tool-sets to more accurately forecast & monetize available “viewable” inventory. Buy-side will need to spend money to properly train & educate media buyers, as well as adequately incentivize desired behavior (the days of hammering price to the lowest possible cost per should subside as value per and demand increases).

    CTR: It is important to keep in mind that brand managers do not know what a click means at a cash register, there is little correlation. CTR, even if the ratio is built upon the foundation of the viewable impression, is still a poor metric for success and optimization (of brand campaigns).

    In the background, all boats rise as the ancillary vendors necessary to support industry-wide adoption(including C3) will certainly benefit.

  9. I believe the problem of out of view (or below the fold) impressions to be greater than anyone has yet to quantify, and I applaud anyone who speaks up about this and encourages the industry to move towards a standard that we can all adopt.

    Take RTB’s growth on the back of data driven buys. So long as the impression call maps to a cookie that has the audience you are looking to reach, the machine is going to bid. Page profiling can only go so far to mitigate bidding on undesirable placements as a significant amount of RTB enabled impressions are still entirely or semi blind. And even those pages that are profiled are not perfect as every browser and ad tag implementation can potentially report ad position in different ways.

    I realize that back end metrics will dictate buys, but with the ever growing supply of impressions, pages and placements the machine will always have to correct against the moving target that is the impression – was it viewed was it not. We should be measuring whether or not the ad actually made an impression and we can’t do that until what we’re measuring is a stable standard.