Major brands are leading the way out of the viewability rabbit hole

02/02 By Paul Nasse
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In an endless pursuit of viewability, the digital advertising industry has ended up in somewhat of a rabbit hole. Just like Alice on that infamous descent into Wonderland, we have chased an enticing opportunity – a metric that gauges if ads can make an impact – only to find ourselves in the dark when it comes to understanding the bigger picture of campaign performance.

Now the world’s largest advertiser, Proctor and Gamble (P&G), is leading the way out of the rabbit hole by laying out its bold stance on the level of transparency surrounding viewability. P&G is fully endorsing the Media Ratings Council’s viewability standards and expects everyone it deals with – from ad tech businesses to agencies – to do the same by the end of 2017. While chief marketing officer Marc Pritchard stopped short of a Queen-of-Hearts-style “Off with their heads!”, he did state that P&G “will no longer tolerate the ridiculous complexity of different viewability standards” and explained suppliers who don’t comply with the new rules simply won’t get paid.

But viewability on its own is not sufficient to guarantee a transparent media supply chain, which is why P&G and other leading brands are also enforcing third-party verification measurement and transparent agency contracts to combat issues such as ad fraud. If the industry wants to climb out of the transparency rabbit hole, there is one clear option: moving from media-centricity to a brand-centric perspective that takes the consumer into account.

So why are viewability metrics alone not enough to achieve this goal, and what else can brands do to ensure their campaigns have maximum impact?

Why viewability alone is not enough

No one can say that viewability isn’t important – if ads can’t be seen by users they won’t have the chance to engage audiences, and that means brands are investing in vain. Indeed, viewability is a vital factor of campaign measurement – greater awareness has already fuelled a rise in viewable ad rates across the globe, according to media quality data from the first half of 2016.

Yet viewability isn’t everything – it’s a starting point and can guarantee the opportunity to reach consumers, but it can’t ensure ads will capture their attention and make a tangible impact. To gain a complete view of advertising performance, it is therefore important for brands to consider other key factors, such as whether ads are seen in a contextually appropriate environment that aligns with and reinforces campaign messaging, or how many times ads are viewed before consumers are inspired to take action.

In short, if brands and agencies focus entirely on maximising viewability, they may find they have invested heavily in ads that are 100% viewable but largely ineffective. What’s more, they could also discover those viewability rates have been falsely inflated by fraudsters.

The perils of tunnel vision

Where the money flows, fraud will follow and as brands, agencies, and publishers have set their sights on viewability, so have fraudsters – deploying bots to generate fake views (or non-human traffic) that artificially boost rates and take a cut of advertising revenues.

In 2016 alone, global brands lost $7.2bn to non-human traffic, almost a $1bn increase since 2015. This makes it even more essential for brands across the world to establish a system of measurement that doesn’t simply take a binary approach to whether ads are seen or not, but also verifies if they are seen by humans. In doing so they can guard against wasting advertising efforts, and spend, on fraudulent activity. For example, as part of its clampdown on media quality and transparency, P&G is taking a stand on fraud – insisting that the Trustworthy Accountability Group must accredit all companies involved with digital media transactions.

The factors that do boost performance

We’ve established that viewability alone is not a passport to advertising success, and there are many other elements brands should be considering to optimise their campaigns:

1. Pick the right format

In a bid to keep ads visible, many brands and publishers have focused on filling pages with multiple, attention-grabbing ads. While this might raise viewability rates, it can also clutter up sites and diminish the user experience – especially on mobile where screens are smaller and ads can disrupt activity, absorb data, and drain battery power. Instead of aiming for as many views as possible, brands should track which formats produce the greatest levels of engagement on each channel and make quality their number one priority.

2. Centre on creative

Putting ads in front of users is one thing, piquing their interest is another, and that’s still the job of high quality creative. If brands want to stir consumer interest, they need to spend time finding out what works: a/b testing campaigns, tweaking design and adjusting messaging to determine the ideal mix for individual consumers. This may mean being more realistic about the costs of delivering high quality creative – some brands are revising their media-agency fee structure to ensure fees are matched to services so its agencies remain profitable without resorting to questionable practices.

3. Refocus media quality perspective

In-depth, accurate campaign analysis that can be used to optimise performance is the holy grail for all brands. Yet if they only measure whether ads are seen, this goal will remain unfulfilled. To establish what produces the best results, brands also need to track exposure – the length of time consumers view ads, and how many times they do so across media placements. These measurements should be independently verified, and with major brands leading the way by adopting MRC-accredited third-party verification and expecting their media suppliers to do the same. The resulting insights can then be assessed, in conjunction with conversion data, to pinpoint the right formula for advertising effectiveness; the frequency level and exposure time that leads to uplift in desired conversions (such as purchases or ad recall), as well as which publisher sites can achieve this.

4. Develop publisher models

The way in which ad performance is judged is starting to change – with publishers such as the Telegraph and the Economist starting to use cost-per-hour (CPH) metrics, rather than just standard viewability. Yet it will take more than a few innovators to drive an evolution in performance measurement; we need a wider change of mindset. If brands are to gain a detailed, accurate understanding of campaign effectiveness, the industry must work as a whole to ensure we look at user exposure and how this translates to both online and offline sales, as well as viewability.

As P&G’s Pritchard summarised: “We have a media supply chain that is murky at best and fraudulent at worst. We need to clean it up, and invest the time and money we save into better advertising to drive growth.” And I couldn’t say it better myself.

By climbing out of the rabbit hole we’ve found ourselves adopting a more brand and consumer focused approach to measurement, the industry can rediscover other, essential elements of advertising – how, why, and where users interact with ads – and in doing so, create a path that leads up and out, back into the light.

This article was published in The Drum.