TV Can No Longer Avoid The Viewability Challenge

by Dan Schiffman

The echoing three-count drumbeat of transparency, fraud and viewability has amplified the din of the digital marketing cacophony. The challenges these issues present have proven so strong that some agency holding companies are voluntarily superseding industry minimums by setting higher thresholds for quality delivery than what the standards bodies recommend. Blame it on a hungry set of publishers, ad tech vendors, and anxious marketers, but the high level of noise is finally getting quieted by folks like Marc Pritchard at P&G who are leading the charge to make the digital landscape accountable for media placement.

TV has fallen to the number two slot in media spend — having made it over 75 years without having to own up to who actually saw an ad displayed on their television set. The famous John Wanamaker quote – “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half” – was born for the print world and easily translated to TV. While the digital ecosystem can very accurately understand who specifically saw an ad and for how long, the more mainstream impression-based media placements got a hall pass from having to tie an impression to a consumer, and a consumer to a sale.

Eyeballs, Meet Impressions

That time is changing though. If digital has suffered the recent wrath of detailed measurement, that approach is starting to make TV look woefully unprepared for modern marketing management. The multi-front war – for attribution, targeting, and personalisation – weighs against the current TV ad measurement approach. Layer in OTT, addressable TV, and connected TV data, and the issue shifts from offence to defense for advertisers interested in measuring which messages resonate.

There are two dynamics at play here. The first is the knowledge of whether the TV was being watched when it was “on.” For any of you with kids, dogs, and multiple TV sets, there are many times that the TV is on but no one is watching (never mind the many times that the TV screen is off but the set top box does not know that). The second is, assuming their is a beating heart in the room, who that person is and are they using the TV for background noise.

The way it works today, viewability on TV is measured by completion. If the program or ad shows in total based on set-top box or Smart TV data, the assumption is that it was seen in its entirety. But think about the number of screens in your house, and which one you or your family are looking at when the commercials come on. If you are actively watching TV, chances are good that you are also actively changing the channel. If you are not paying attention, those ads are probably playing out entirely. So the correlation between 100 percent airplay and 100 percent viewability is not what it seems, and may actually be the reverse.

The important part of the above chart is the delta between standard GRPs and those weighted by attention. This measurement of viewability is powerful in that it answers the question of not just who tuned in, but who is actually watching the show. For broadcasters and pay TV operators, this could translate into better ad prices. For advertisers, it’s a better media plan and likely better link to brand and sales lift.

Ratings Still Matter

Let’s be clear. Ratings are a critical measure of interest, audience reach, and value of the spot placement. But as Dave Morgan of Simulmedia has consistently pointed out, ratings and audience sizes are decreasing as the volume of content is fragmented across broadcast, cable and over-the- top viewing channels. So a show with a lower rating and a high attention score may actually drive more impact than a highly rated show that is on in the background. The two measures need to work together to prove the viewable impact of a TV ad.

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Views Need to Replace Impression-Based CPMs

Programmatic digital advertising was supposed to deliver a new level of accountability: Narrower targeting to drive more tailored messages, and performance metrics that inform what’s working and what’s not. But the promise of programmatic is rendered moot if ads are not viewed by human beings.

The economic framework of digital advertising on the open internet is still defined by impressions rather than views. Beyond Facebook and Google, there are thousands of quality domains and apps out there that offer superior, brand-safe content. For marketers to reach those audiences with full confidence, it is critical for programmatic technology to shift from impressions to views, with buyers paying if, and only if, their ads are viewed.

Indeed, for more than 20 years, digital advertising has been bought and sold based on CPMs. By definition, then, this universal digital currency values the number of impressions served rather than audience time and engagement, and the digital media economy has developed accordingly. Publishers are rewarded for quantity and scale—not the quality—of ad units.

Low CPMs and poor user experience

In 2011, according to an article on Adobe’s Digital Marketing Blog, CPMs declined a jaw-dropping 31 percent year over year, despite a corresponding 271 percent increase in the number of impressions served. “The key driver for CPM declines appears to be a wider play for less expensive inventory,” the author noted.

As CPMs for display ads decreased over time, publishers had to achieve scale to deliver enough impressions to preserve monetization across their digital channels, and media buyers and traders had to buy more impressions to spend their clients’ budgets. It’s easy to see how clickbait, ad farms, pops and other low-quality tactics thrived on the internet. These business models were rewarded, even as the user experience was degraded.

It’s also easy to see why consumers adopt ad blockers to avoid the barrage of unwanted ads. Or why they turn to their Facebook News Feeds to consume their preferred media in an environment designed to balance curated information with relevant marketer messages. In addition to this engaged audience, Facebook offers another critical advantage to marketers: It only charges for ads that scroll into view.

Until now, marketers have faced a stark choice: Spend their advertising budgets on Facebook, with the guarantee their ads would be viewed, or use programmatic on the open internet where perhaps half of those units are viewable.

The need for viewabiity standards

Brands and agencies are rightfully demanding viewability standards on the open internet. But most technology has not yet caught up. As eMarketer reported last year, many media agencies don’t even have line items in their systems to support anything other than CPM-based media buys. This leads to a manual reconciliation process, which adds one more task to a media trader’s already long list of tedious to-dos.

Technology companies that support a free and open internet have an opportunity to meet and exceed these marketer demands. For the past three years, AppNexus has been investing in machine learning-driven technology to help traders buy on a 100-percent-viewable basis, even when publishers are still defaulting to sell on CPMs. On each impression, AppNexus automatically predicts the likelihood of a view and pays the publisher per impression based on that prediction. The buyer only pays for impressions that are viewable.

Outcomes-based buying

Meeting the viewability standard is just the first step in achieving better economic incentives and measurement for digital ad effectiveness. The future will bring additional outcomes-based buying solutions that allow marketers and agencies to buy on the basis of tangible and verifiable results like video completion.

Automated outcomes-based buying will enable media traders to spend their time gaining a competitive advantage for their clients. Indeed, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy or metric for user engagement. Attention and engagement differ across channels (desktop, mobile) and formats (display, video, audio, native). Traders’ roles, in turn, will shift to delivering strategic outcomes as opposed to blanket impressions.

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Ad Industry Unites for First European Viewability Standard

The European ad industry has published its first set of viewability principles as it works to create a standards framework that it hopes will become the benchmark online. The new European-wide framework aims to help reduce discrepancies, as currently different platforms and different agencies have their own standards.

The European Viewability Steering Group, set up by the IAB Europe, WFA and European Association of Communications Agencies, aims to provide a “quality benchmark” that should improve the accuracy and consistency of measuring viewable impressions. It is now looking for suitable auditors to ensure its principles are being met.

download your copy of new standards here