Ad Viewability: If a tree falls in a forest but no one hears it...

Ad Viewability: If a tree falls in a forest but no one hears it...

Viewability – it doesn’t get more important than this. The best online or mobile ad in the world is worthless if no one sees it.

What is viewability?

Essentially, an ad is considered by the Media Rating Council (MRC) as “viewable” on a computer display if at least half of its pixels are presented to the visitor for at least a second (or two seconds if video). The MRC jury is still out on how this standard should be defined for mobile viewing.

Factoring into viewability are matters such as an ad loading slower than the page such as that the user clicks off the page before the ad loads, “ad clutter ratio” – i.e. the user not noticing the ad even when it’s on the page because of competition from other ads, bot traffic – i.e. it’s not a human viewing the page at all, “below the fold” issues, pop-up ads when pop-ups are being blocked, and more.

This infographic to the right from Nielsen Catalina Solutions demonstrates the viewability problem and proposes solutions.

What about mobile viewability?

The infographic shown here is about viewability on desktop ads, but the mobile industry is looking at the ad viewability problem too, as this infographic on mobile viewability problems demonstrates.

Though the problem is less severe than with PC browser ads, a review of data involving more than 10,000 websites concluded that less than 50 percent of ads served on the mobile web currently meet MRC’s viewability standard for PCs.

Some good news from a standards perspective: MRC expects to have a draft of the mobile viewability standard ready by Q4 of 2015. And, according to Ad Age, Facebook is also working to create standards to ensure that smartphone and tablet ads are only counted if they could actually been seen.

Getting accurate measurement regarding viewability will likely continue to be a challenge for the foreseeable future for anyone attempting to use standard online metrics, such as impressions. As you can see from the infographic, the problem is largely “the nature of the beast.” That is, impressions are registered in metrics tools even when one cannot concretely say whether or not the person actually saw the ad with their eyes.

New-school advertising – not that different from old-school advertising

While this disconnect between digital ad impressions and viewability can be frustrating for advertisers, let’s not forget that, as noted in Old Testament times, there is nothing new under the sun. Perhaps Solomon was right. After all, even more traditional advertising environments, such as TV or print ads, share similar viewability problems with ads. For example, a person may buy a newspaper but never flip over to the ad on page 3. And even before there were DVR’s, making it possible for us to fast-forward through ads, there was never a guarantee that the TV show viewer didn’t use the commercial as a bathroom break.

Measuring what matters changes the discussion completely

The good news is that some mobile ad companies, such as 4INFO, are able to more accurately measure the success of your campaign by measuring incremental sales lift – matching mobile ad impressions to actual purchases, and calculating a Return on Ad Spend (ROAS) that factors in both the incremental sales lift resulting from the mobile ad exposures and the media cost.

So what does that have to do with viewabilty of mobile ads? Because as Nielsen Catalina Solutions’ infographic beautifully states: Bots may watch ads, but they don’t buy groceries. Marketers who count on actual in-store sales lift to determine if their mobile ad campaigns are profitable, instead of traditional digital KPI’s such as views and clicks, quickly figure out that viewability is a non-issue. If a particular mobile ad platform is plagued with fraudulent views or failure to show potential buyers ads, it will be uncovered by a negative ROAS because too many impressions were served relative to the sales generated.

Marketers seeing a positive ROAS of say 257%, as the 59 brands included in 4INFO’s current Mobile Advertising Benchmarks did, will know their money was well spent and they can trust that viewability is not a problem they need to worry about.