Why Viewable Impressions Won’t Matter

alex-calic-ddt“Data Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media. 

Today’s column is written by Alex Calic, Chief Revenue Officer at The Media Trust.

Based on the velocity of articles written on the topic last year, “viewable impressions” has displaced “ad verification” as the hot delivery topic in the ad tech industry for 2013. But when you consider how the media consumption habits of Internet users are changing, viewability fades in near-term importance.

Consumers are spending ever more time on social networks — more than any other category of sites on the web — and as such are becoming accustomed to a content experience that differs significantly from what is offered by typical website content management systems. The traditional web page is an adaptation of legacy print media, which pieces together multiple columns of static content with blocks of ads in a portrait layout. Led by Facebook’s News Feed, social networks are popularizing a different approach that displays standardized units of content, in the form of text, links and images from a user’s social graph. Those content elements appear in a single column that updates with new information in real time.

The pace of adoption of mobile devices is furthering the spread of this stream-based approach to presenting content, as digital media companies attempt to package all of the information embedded on a traditional web page into a mobile app or website with very limited screen real estate.

An early example of this was the September launch of Atlantic Media’s Quartz (left), a digital-only business media property built specifically for the mobile web that has already reached 1.4 million unique visitors.

The relevance of new digital experiences to the viewable impressions  debate lies in how the content and associated ads are being presented to users. Both Facebook and Twitter have shown how this combination can work in the age of social streams and mobile devices — with Sponsored Stories and Promoted Tweets respectively.

Both ad units are integrated into the content feed from a look and feel perspective, and both target users based on their social graph relationships. The ad units themselves can be fixed in the flow of the content stream, moving down the page as the feed refreshes with new updates, or can be fixed at the top of the feed. In either case, since the content cascades down from the top of the app or web page the ad is always being presented, and thus seen, in the user’s viewing area.

The stream-formatted approach to content presentation is also starting to make its way on to traditional digital media websites like ESPN, which launched the beta of its SportsCenter Feed in September (below). ESPN, which has traditionally been an early adopter of digital technologies and experiences, is taking a similar approach to Quartz in delivering a real-time, ad-supported, news feed with the added capability to consume subsets of the stream via content-specific tabs —  as well as the ability to add skins to the background that further promote the content sponsor.


In all of these stream examples, the ad creative is muted in contrast to the typical flashy ad unit and consists of a single advertiser. So what the advertiser loses in “wow” factor (or “ow” from the user perspective) with a traditional ad experience is made up for in relevance (hopefully) and singular attention by not having to compete with other advertisers on a page and by being presented front-and-center to the user — ensuring the ad is seen. As the real-time news feed approach to presenting media proliferates, it will alleviate the need to use verification services for viewable impressions.

Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that the ad tech industry was consumed with a different delivery issue — ad verification. The likes of AdSafe Media and DoubleVerify raised over $50 million combined in 2010-2011 to build a business around solving for this issue. In 2012 both companies replaced their CEOs while AdSafe also underwent a rebranding as ad verification became commoditized at the ad server level and a smaller problem, especially related to premium content publishers, than the industry led everyone to believe. Let’s not go through this again with viewable impressions.

Follow Alex Calic (@alexcalic) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter. 

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  1. As an advertiser, why wouldn’t I still be interested in viewability? If the stream creatives are somewhat muted, then viewability becomes even more important. It even becomes important to understand not only that the ad was rendered in the viewable space, but also the location on the page.

    My own analysis has shown that a disagreeably high percentage of advertisements are not even being seen. Yet I continue to see a lot of pushback on advertisers on why we either should not worry about viewability or how it doesn’t matter. Why? Shouldn’t my ads at least be seen and I shouldn’t I have the ability to verify that independently?

    • Alex Calic

      Mark- what we are starting to see with these examples is that the issue of viewability becomes moot because of how the ads are placed into the feed framework (ie always visible when the stream loads). The conversation can then move from technologies that get added to the ad delivery stack and to how to find the best content to sponsor for the advertiser and make their ad/brand relevant in that experience.

      Sites that don’t decide to evolve to this framework will have to deal with viewability issues so it behooves them to migrate faster if they want to create the best experience for all the constituents (user, site, advertiser).

  2. Dan Toth

    What you’re describing is perhaps a newer theory on the presentation and digestion of ads, but it has nothing to do with the technical aspect of viewable impressions…

    • Alex Calic

      My only point as to the technical aspect of viewable impressions is that, like ad verification, lots of money and time will be spent on solving an delivery/measurement issue that could be better spent elsewhere as everyone tries to push their own technical solution as the best one.

  3. I believe the writer doesn’t understand the concept of advertising viewability and its importance. Currently, digital media are the only media segment that do not provide guarantees to advertisers that their ads can be seen – that the “opportunity to see” exists. This has helped limited digital to being a direct response medium, and a medium that is difficult to plan, buy, and measure consonant with other media. A viewability standard is a simple baseline guarantee of that opportunity to see, so that non-DR metrics can be deployed as they are in television, print, and other media that consumer brand advertisers have used over the years.

    To say that viewability is unimportant because in-stream native advertising is on the rise is like saying oxygen is unimportant because air also contains nitrogen – it’s an illogical argument. First, while in-stream native advertising is rising, it is not the dominant form of online brand advertising; display is, and it is moving inexorably to a viewability standard. Second, native advertising by definition does not scale; if in-stream standards and delivery mechanisms develop and are accepted that allow for cross-site scale, then advertisers will demand viewability guarantees.

    Third, there is no viewability industry pushing this standard, as the author implies was the case with ad verification: The push has come from the three major trade associations, the IAB, ANA, and 4As, representing the three major components of the marketing-media value chain. Scores of our member companies have participated in the research and implementation, among them some of the largest agencies, marketers, and publishers in the world. They, and our entire industry, require a viewability standard, and it will be accepted and implemented over the next year or so.

  4. Jason Patterson

    Interesting perspective. The one piece of ‘validation’ that you didn’t mention however, is audience. I agree that publishers will and should develop solutions that allows them to sell more meaningful content but the issue will always exist as to WHO it is served to, no matter the platform.

  5. Alex Calic

    Randall- thanks for contributing (as I hoped you might) as I know you are our industry’s biggest (cheer)leader and appreciate the passion you put behind bringing more ad dollars to our industry. To touch on the points you made:

    1. I think the “opportunity to see” conversation is nuanced. I would argue that ‘it’ already exist on the web today, but isn’t as straight-forward as other mediums because time and space are limitless online versus radio and tv (which are linear mediums and bound by time) and print (which is bound by physical space). A stream-based approach helps bring content presentation on the web more in-line with these other mediums by limiting content to a stream that flows from the top down the page which will enable every ad impression to default to viewable.

    2. I am definitely not saying that viewability is unimportant, but rather it is slowly being solved through app and website design that removes the need for imperfect technical solutions because of how content and ads are being presented. Digg was the first site to incorporate feed ads years ago and showed a path to scalability outside of platforms like Facebook and Twitter since you can create pixel height x width guidelines that other sites can adopt. Also, my definition of native advertising is different than yours since I believe native can sale since to me it means it adds value to the site experience (see Google AdWords for example) and isn’t just a highly-customized ad unit.

    3. Standards make sense but can lead to bad behavior and execution (which I used ad verification as an example of, not to imply anything else). Also, I’m not saying a viewability standard will not exist, but I do believe over time that it will be more valuable/apply mostly to mid and long-tail sites that have viewability issues rather than premium publishers who will ultimately end up footing the bill for something they don’t need (much like ad verification).

    Always around to chat with you further Randall. Maybe Phoenix?

  6. Jesse Poppick

    What are thoughts on taking viewability to the next level and measuring attention to the ad unit it self? Simply knowing if an ad was viewed may end up being just as limited as measuring clicks. The important measurement should not be limited to seeing the add, but did the viewer pay attention to the ad. Seems to me measurements like In-View Impressions, In-View Time, Interactions and Interaction Time hold a much higher value to the site, the agency, and the advertiser.

    • Alex Calic

      Totally see the value in that Jesse and it should be easier to do by removing the viewability need/calculation in the first place.

  7. Nice article, Alex.

    “solved through app and website design that removes the need for imperfect technical solutions”

    This would be great as I have been underwhelmed by the technology purported to measure viewability.

    “Simply knowing if an ad was viewed may end up being just as limited as measuring clicks. ”

    What’s actually being measured is did there exist an opportunity to view the ad, not that it was viewed. Just as in TV, you may have walked to the refrigerator during the ad pod, but the ad pod did appear on your TV and you had the opportunity to view it, had you not stood up and walked out of the room


  8. Alex Calic

    Thanks Doug. As in my response to Randall- I think the opportunity to see an ad already exists online. Stream feeds just brings the ability to do so more in line with traditional media, which helps everybody.

  9. Alex Grayson

    Here’s how to solve the viewability issue: Have every publisher hire an eye-tracking research team to evaluate the ad units every two weeks with a sample of 1000 users from every demographic.

    The publisher should pay for this and the advertiser should offer a lower CPM as a result.