Sticky: ‘The Ability To Be Seen Is Nice, But Actually Being Seen Is Better’

StickyOldSpiceAdvertisers only want to pay for viewable impressions.

But publishers feel they should have the right to charge more for that type of inventory, said Jeff Bander, president and CRO of biometric online eye-tracking firm Sticky.

Sticky announced a $5 million Series A round on Wednesday led by London-based VC firm Dawn Capital, with participation from Northzone and Conor Venture Partners, both previous Sticky investors. Its clients include Orbitz, AOL and Sublime Skinz, an ad network that specializes in native and home page takeovers.

The new cash, which brings Sticky’s total funding to $11 million, will go toward product development and building out its sales and tech teams. Sticky went from about 50 employees to 17 after transitioning away from its managed service model with the rollout of a SaaS version of its eye-tracking product in October. Sticky is in discussions with the MRC about getting accreditation for its technology.

“Viewability is certainly a big improvement over nothing – the ability to be seen is nice – but actually being seen is better,” said Bander, whose company has been working since January to compile an index that rates how well ad placements perform on well-trafficked websites. Sticky tests the ads with its online panel and creates heat maps of the results.

In one case, Sticky analyzed the attention level garnered by ads on popular sports sites. MSN Sports came in first, with 47% of its ad placements seen by actual eyeballs. ESPN clocked in at 45%; AOL Sports, 42%; and CBS Sports and Yahoo Sports tied for 36%.

In theory, ESPN would be able to use that information to court advertisers and charge higher CPMs – but it’s not as simple as all that, said Ari Lewine, founder of native programmatic company TripleLift, which is one of Sticky’s clients. TripleLift’s own client list includes Martha Stewart, H&M, L’Oreal, Puma, Victoria’s Secret and Condé Nast’s Food Innovation Group.

“As far as I’m concerned, an ad that’s in-view but not seen is worth about as much as a non-viewable ad. In a perfect world, people would buy into that idea and be willing to pay commensurate CPMs for attention,” Lewine said. “But the world we live in is more complicated than that.”

The continuing debate around viewability adds to that complexity. Take ad size, for example. As publishers begin to optimize for better viewability, smaller, lower-impact ads are likely to become more prevalent, at least in the short term. A 100 x 100 pixel ad is inherently more viewable than a bigger, splashier ad because it’s easier for a smaller ad to get at least half of its pixels in-view for one second than it is for a larger ad to accomplish the same.

“If you ask any brand in the world if they’d rather have a 100 x 100 ad or a 500 x 500 ad, the brand will choose the latter every time,” Lewine said. “But if you then tell the brand that it’s unlikely the larger ad will meet the MRC’s standard, that muddies the conversation. There are all sorts of unintended consequences around viewability.”

Those kinks are being worked out. Although the MRC and the IAB have said that it’s “unreasonable” to expect 100% viewability on campaigns right now, they’ve also dubbed 2015 as a “year of transition.”

For his part, Lewine doesn’t that there will come a time when viewability is “table stakes.”

“It’s still a work in progress, but the industry will presumably solve for non-viewable impressions at some point soon,” he said. “And when that happens we can’t, and shouldn’t, treat all viewable ads equally. Viewability is just a proxy for attention, which is what the brands really want.”

From the publisher perspective, most may not trade on attention metrics just yet, but they are doing what they can to evolve their sales processes to keep buyers happy. Yahoo, for example, recently reconfigured its home page so that ad units below the fold would only load when a user actually scrolled to that part of the page.

“As a result, of course, the total number of impressions decrease, but the performance of that ad unit has increased significantly,” said James Deaker, Yahoo’s VP of publisher solutions , speaking at AdExchanger’s San Francisco Programmatic I/O event in mid-April.

And publishers, who also have a bottom line to protect, should be able to charge accordingly for that kind of thing, said Stephen Howard-Sarin, eBay’s head of display advertising, also speaking at Prog I/O.

“[Yahoo changed its site and its inventory mix] in order to be able to do business on that basis. … That’s true for a lot of publishers, and it’s certainly true at eBay,” Howard-Sarin said. “When somebody wants a guaranteed high-quality product … that’s terrific. But it’s a different product [and] it’s a different price. It’s important to have that conversation.”

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