Viewability Will Rewrite Video Economics, Eventually

DynamicsThe only certainties in life are death, taxes and multiple definitions of “viewability.”

The Media Rating Council (MRC) defines a video ad as viewable if half of that ad is in-view for a minimum of two consecutive seconds, but others, like media agency GroupM, are demanding all pixels be in-view with the sound on for at least 50% of the duration of the video (and no auto-play).

With some calling for 100% viewability, the Interactive Advertising Bureau suggested a more achievable alternative – 70%, at least, in the interim. In the mean time, technology vendors, publishers and advertisers are trying to wrap their heads around the different viewability recommendations.

With brands Unilever and American Express both favoring strict definitions of what registers as a viewable impression, the debate is escalating. But there are many wrinkles to iron out before the industry can collectively agree on a common standard and a true market for viewability-based bidding matures.

While Carol Chung, SVP of media technology for Digitas, said current definitions of viewability are merely a starting point, one source called the MRC’s baseline “a ridiculous, paltry standard that devalues media.”

For some, the viewability debate is a walk down memory lane.

“Early on in 2012, we tried to take exposure metrics like time in-view and universal interaction time to the marketplace as a means in which to buy inventory,” said Mark Howard, chief revenue officer for Forbes Media.

The response it got was, “How do we isolate this on a different set of metrics?” Howard added. ‘We heard, ‘Our billing systems and our ad servers aren’t set up this way,’ and so while I think people appreciated our intention, they just weren’t accustomed to that way of buying.”

Are Buyers ‘Buying’ Viewable?

Forbes has pondered viewability for more than three years and worked with Moat to improve its viewability tracking since 2011.

It will roll out a new article page in early April, factoring in viewability and improvements to the overall user experience and ad delivery, Howard said.

For more than a year, Forbes has white-labeled video ad platform Teads’ In-Read player. If 50% of the In-Read player is out of view or if a reader scrolls away or leaves the page, the video stops playing.

“We learned a tremendous amount from this player,” Howard said. “To be honest, it did not go gangbusters for us last year from a sales perspective, and it was certainly something we put in our proposals. There’s a lot of genius in introducing a format like In-Read, but the market is so conditioned to what it’s used to.”

Tim Glenn, VP of business development for women’s lifestyle property SheKnows, also uses Teads’ in-article units. For the most part, these are direct sold, but it works with Teads to package some inventory for incremental sales.

While people were talking about completion rate and CTRs in 2013, that conversation has shifted to brand safety and viewability, Glenn said.

The biggest shift over the last 18 months has been to engagement-based pricing, or pricing parameters around cost per completed view for user-initiated formats.

“At DigitasLBi, we have a perspective that time spent with an ad is a major contributing factor to attention and recall,” Chung said. “We are already underway with testing our theories against causal impact, attention metrics, viewable value against performance and more.”

Resetting The Video Currency

Although Jim Daily, managing director for North America at Teads, acknowledged a majority of video ads are pre-roll and are priced on a CPM basis, the In-Read format aims to let publishers offer more flexibility in pricing around completed views.

“The market is accustomed to things they’re used to, which happens to still be pre-roll, but pre-roll, like the banner, will come under intense scrutiny this year,” Forbes’ Howard predicted. “The more viewability tracking that enters pre-roll, the more that you can detect the player size and the resolution and advertisers will have a wakeup call.”

The argument that viewability will drive up CPMs is too simplistic a way to assess the evolution at hand, some experts say.

Market demand will ultimately dictate pricing conditions, said David Hahn, SVP of product management for ad verifier Integral Ad Science, which bought video measurement company Veenome last week.

“The viewability discussion indicates [that] the supply and demand curve needs to be reset,” he said. “Once the sell side can prove out how viewable or how much ‘quality’ is inherent in the media, the demand will say, ‘that’s valuable to me’ and the prices will go up. However, let’s say there’s only one guy in the bid chain who wants it, they’re going to get a very good deal.”

Hahn’s point answers a common argument that advertisers shouldn’t have to pay a premium for viewable impressions.

“Supply and demand will obviously dictate where pricing will end up, but you might think that to a certain extent, you could lower your effective CPM by packaging viewable and non-viewable impressions together,” Glenn added.

In the burgeoning video ads ecosystem, there’s arguably no middle ground between the scarce premium publisher inventory, which commands sky-high CPMs and the cheaper long-tail stuff sometimes associated with open exchanges.

As more nuanced pricing parameters come into play, experts say it will diversify the supply chain. Player size, page proximity, device type and audibility are additional factors to weigh in with video, since the experience is so contextual.

Some of the video DSPs are letting buyers optimize against “Viewable Impression” or “Viewable Complete,” both suiting different campaign goals. For instance, buying on viewable completion is one way to guarantee an ad had a better chance of achieving brand impact.

“The hard thing will be to scale, and I don’t mean scale in that there’s not enough viewable impressions out there,” said Brian Mandelbaum, CEO of video ad platform Clearstream, which recently launched a private marketplace where advertisers can bid based on viewability percentages and where the market price varies based on percent time in view.

“The question is, are advertisers willing to pay for what the true value is to achieve a viewable campaign?” he said. “You can debate 50% or 60% in-view, but it doesn’t matter. It’s about time and, out of 20 seconds, what was the percentage opportunity to run in-view?”

Can Viewability Standards Translate to Mobile?

Until browser-based viewability issues are solved, mobile is barely a blip on the radar. But because some publisher audiences are now more than 50% mobile, it’s another lingering challenge the industry has yet to solve, SheKnows’ Glenn said.

Because mobile users are highly engaged with their devices, the bar is even higher.

Some companies are developing formats to address this problem, such as video ad platform Unruly, which develops in-feed formats that mimic the experience of Facebook in-app video.

It also has a programmatic buying platform called UnrulyX, which allows advertisers to bid on viewable impressions from premium publishers like USA Today and IDG Tech. UnrulyX has hooks in to Index Exchange for access to programmatic demand from trading desks and DSPs.

“Once the video has been triggered by coming into the viewable area on the smartphone, our billing event is three seconds of viewability, so it’s a bit ahead of the MRC threshold,” said Unruly’s founder and CEO, Scott Button.

“We’re only able to bill for inventory when the three-second threshold has been met, so it’s basically guaranteeing, in a programmatic environment, that every impression you’re buying will be viewable regardless of which third-party platform you used for verification.”

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