What Does Viewability Mean for Publishers?

August 5th, 2014 by Alexandra

This is the second post in a series about online advertising measurement and methodologies. Feel free to email me or post in the comments section about topics you’d like to see covered in this series. Curious about Chartbeat advertising tools? Learn more here.

In the last post we went back to the basics to answer “What is Viewability?” This week, we’re taking a closer look at what viewability means for publishers.

So, how are publishers responding to the MRC’s viewability certification?

Over the past year or so, many publishers have taken steps to better understand, and to improve their site’s viewability—a process that typically starts with at least one (often several) of the MRC’s dozen or so accredited vendors running viewability measurements on their site. Although results from these tests tend to vary from vendor to vendor (we’ll talk more about that in a bit), these tests have given publishers the opportunity to not only challenge preconceived notions about the value of certain ad placements, but also to make changes to their sites to optimize for viewability.

According to a recent AdMonsters report, 74% of the 50 major publishers they surveyed had completed viewability vendor testing. Of that group, 46% have already made adjustments to improve viewability, such as repositioning ads, removing ads, and implementing “Just-in-Time” ad serving to reduce load time. Many larger publishers, including Yahoo! and The Washington Post, have taken the new viewability standard as an opportunity to rethink site design on a large scale, revamping sites with cleaner, more fluid user experiences with fewer, larger ad formats.

Particularly among premium publishers, we’ve seen new site designs that are beginning to shift focus away from leaderboards and mid page ad units (MPUs) and move toward more responsive ad placements that better blend with editorial formats. A few major news sites, including LATimes.com, NBCNews.com, and Time.com have also incorporated streaming content features such as continuous scrolling, where readers have a clickless transition from one article to the next, and don’t have to wait for a new page to load.

In other words, these publishers are making changes that not only increase viewability, but also improve overall user experience. The Los Angeles Times, for example, aimed to “eradicate print-centric and antiquated web concepts, such as ‘the fold,’ ‘the jump,’ ‘endless clicking,’ and ‘the dead end’...and seamlessly path readers from one piece of content to the next,” with their May redesign. In doing so, they—alongside Time.com and The Daily Beast—are creating an experience that increases the amount of time visitors spend on their site, and in effect, boosts the likelihood of consumers engaging with their content and the surrounding ads—a win for publishers, marketers, and consumers.

On the other hand, some publishers’ efforts to protect ad revenue have come at the cost of consumer experience. Think additional ads, pop-ups, page takeovers, and full-page interstitials.

Along with changes to site design and user experience, viewability is also forcing publishers to rethink pricing and yield management models. Be on the lookout for a demand-side vs. supply-side rundown later in our blog series.

How are publishers using viewability to their advantage?

As I mentioned in our first post, the new viewability standard could be very beneficial to publishers—especially those producing premium content. Let’s break it down:

  1. Premium content is more likely to grab, and most importantly, maintain, a reader’s attention. In theory, a highly engaged audience will deliver better campaign performance for marketers. Read: If the audience is engaging with content while an ad is in view, they're more likely to meet and surpass the one-second viewability requirement.Better performance will then increase demand for those ad placements, thus making ads integrated with premium content more valuable.
  2. As Jason Kint, now CEO of the Online Publisher’s Association, recently pointed out, viewability “aligns the monetization of websites more closely with the consumption of sites. The more marketers’ dollars line up with share of consumers’ time the better off content companies will be.”
  3. As ad spend shifts away from traditional media like TV, new advertising money is being allocated to digital. Viewability will offer, at least on some level, a more consistent system of attribution across media channels. As a result, we will most likely see digital media included in brand allocations more frequently. Thus, as media planners build out cross-channel campaigns and begin to trade programmatically, digital content that can deliver high viewability and prove measurable engagement will stand to benefit.

What challenges are publishers facing during this transition?

Although viewability is widely considered a step in the right direction for the industry as a whole, this progress doesn’t come without a number of challenges for publishers. Many of these challenges are due to the fact that viewable impressions are not predictable. Rather, they are a function of page placement, content makeup, and consumer behavior—a combination of moving parts that inevitably leads to a wide spectrum of viewability patterns.

Moreover, we have to take into account that an impression being viewable is binary. It’s either viewable, or it’s not. And if it’s not, it does not have value. Viewability, as it currently stands, offers a one-dimensional view of a much larger, more complex equation for evaluating the value and effectiveness of a campaign.

Unfortunately, this leaves the door open for low quality sites to exploit the system. Some sites will choose to maximize their number of viewable impressions through general bad behavior (pages covered in ads, poor quality, click-bait content, disruptive reading experiences), and in effect, decrease the value of viewability. While this behavior may not be sustainable—over time, high quality content that earns reader engagement will win out—in the short term it may create pricing obstacles for premium publishers.

Another big challenge for publishers is lack of consistency in viewability measurements. Many publishers have found that their viewability percentage varies, sometimes drastically, from vendor to vendor. On a positive note, the MRC lifting its advisory will push companies that were quick to hop on the viewability measurement train to address core technical problems in order to come into modern compliance with the council’s hard standards.

The thing is, measuring viewability is a complex challenge. (I’ve saved the technical details as for why that is for a later post.) Even with the MRC’s guidelines and accreditation process, which has drastically improved accuracy and standardized how vendors measure viewability, publishers will certainly face a number obstacles in the short term.

One very real hurdle among the many is that publishers may not get paid for impressions that an agency’s vendor reports as non-viewable, even if another vendor, has identified the ads as legitimate and running in view.

Long story short, viewability is a work in progress. But we are moving in the right direction.

Up next in our series: "What Does Viewability Mean for Advertisers?" Stay tuned...