In a Google research piece on the five factors of video viewability1, we highlighted the growing importance for publishers to ensure that ads are seen, and the steps they can take to improve ad viewability. In March this year Neal Mohan, our VP of Product Management, also wrote about the challenges the industry faces as it struggles to find a way of establishing viewability as a common currency for trading, defining standards and resolving discrepancies2.
The debate has moved on since the beginning of this year and we are closer to reaching consensus across the demand and supply sides of the business, with the majority of advertisers and publishers supporting the MRC/IAB standard. However, progress has been too slow and some well publicised statements from a few large players has created uncertainty, preventing the industry from achieving broad agreement and advancing beyond the viewability discussion.
We spend a lot of time in the marketplace talking to our Agency and Publisher Partners about how they are approaching viewability and the challenges it creates. It's obvious that there are some clear differences in approach and there is still a chasm between where the market is today and where it needs to be. For example, most buyers claim to be trading on viewability for brand and performance campaigns but very few sellers are. Of course, it's likely that a number of buyers are running analyses on viewability and using this to inform their buying decisions, rather than having an outright negotiation with the publisher. But this only helps reinforce the problem that we have of opaque buying mechanisms and lack of clarity on how we start to trade on an industry defined currency.
The User Experience has to come First
Does this matter? Buyers will always try to gain advantage in negotiations, and it's the role of the seller to counter this. But it's not an overstatement to say that viewability is going to transform how digital is bought and sold. If we look at user engagement, we can see that they are increasingly turned off by the constant barrage of poorly targeted and unengaging ads. As publishers focus on maximising revenue, the user experience has all too often been ignored in favour of more ads on the page, disruptive ad formats and retargeted ads that follow the user for months on end. The good news is that amongst many premium publishers there is growing recognition that this has to stop and that the user experience comes first. By focusing on a better brand experience, reducing the number of ads on a page and ensuring that these are optimised against viewability, eCPMs and revenue per page should increase along with brand engagement and performance metrics.
One such publisher is Time Inc, whose Head of Digital Advertising Sam Finlay says, "We've been measuring our inventory's viewability scores for two years or more. Going forward our aim would be to move beyond viewability as the core debate and focus on what happens following the ad being served in-view. We as an industry need to get to a place where viewability metrics can be standardised and trusted. Then the debate can start around which content, editorial environments and platforms deliver the best engagement and interaction for the target audience. In time viewability should become a hygiene factor. We may be still quite a way from this being reality, but if we believe that reaching the right audience in the right place at the right time still holds, then viewability will be seen as the gateway to getting this right for digital display rather than the end game itself."
This is a view that we wholeheartedly support and we believe that the entire industry should get behind it, too.
How do we connect buyers and sellers to execute this change?
Here are the three key issues we need to reach an agreement on:
1) Definition of a viewable impression: Before anything else can move forward, all parties must accept the IAB/MRC definition for display and video as defined in the Viewable Ad Impression Measurement Guidelines 2014. This underpins the whole debate and without acceptance by all parties, we won't reach an agreement on how to trade on viewable impressions, thus setting ourselves up to fail.
2) Measurement methodology between vendors: There should be no material difference between different vendors reporting on viewability, creating a level playing field for all. To achieve this, measurement technology should be integrated with the ad server and we should also agree a solution to report on all creative sizes and formats across all channels. Delivering consistency between vendors creates a scaleable marketplace, and although secondary metrics can provide valuable additional insights, they should not be used in place of the accepted standard methodology.
3) Industry standard for trading viewable impressions: The IAB and MRC should lead this, working with other bodies representing advertisers and publishers and leading digital companies. The outcome should be consensus amongst all companies on how we trade against viewable impressions. While the IAB's 'State of Viewability Transactions 2015' Report is helpful in this respect, it does not go far enough and has not, as yet, been widely adopted. Google's view is that we should ultimately trade on 100% viewable impression goals, and anything less is a compromise. It may take some time to get there but we'd like the industry to agree and work towards a deadline for this to take effect. Without a clearly defined timeframe, there is little incentive for any of the parties involved to deliver the changes required to meet this goal.
One final point that we should consider is whether the IAB/MRC recommendations go far enough. Is it the right argument to say that we are going to trade on 100% viewable impression goals when the reality is that we are still only measuring a display ad as viewable if it is 50% in view for 1 second, or a desktop video standard of 50% for 2 seconds?
Some have argued the case for only paying for ads that are 100% in view and while this argument may appear to make sense it is not in the best interests of the industry. We should first work towards achieving the trading goal I've outlined above, recognising the validity of the IAB/MRC standard and the work that has gone into setting this, by all parties. This standard was designed to allow all vendors to accurately measure viewability for all campaigns and all formats at scale. Once we have achieved this consistency, together with acceptance of trading practices around viewability, we can start to consider refining our goals and supporting secondary metrics that are better suited to individual advertiser needs. Adopting these steps will not only ensure a healthier ecosystem in the short term, but also help protect the digital advertising marketplace in the future.