The digital advertising industry loves to glom onto a trend and a buzzword like nobody’s business. The latest is “Viewability” and boy is it suddenly the most important metric you’ve ever heard of and if you aren’t on top of it you’re failing as a media buyer.

While we see the importance of viewability, let’s keep things in perspective. First, what is it and what does it mean?

The media world is so fragmented in how advertising is bought and sold that it has compounded over decades into an era where not only are the delivery methods so vastly different, but so are the negotiating tactics.  In offline media, say for this example, broadcast (TV and Radio), most media is purchased through a measure of GRPs or gross rating points, which is a percentage of the target audience.  Because media vendors compile this data primarily through surveys, it has created an investment landscape where much negotiation goes into rate reductions and added value because the margin of over and under delivery can be high, and as a result these added value pieces which can be perceived as “rare opportunities” are pretty much an essential part of a buy.  Simply put if you’re buying broadcast at rate card price or without added value, you’re being swindled.

Go to digital and the entire negotiating landscape changes.  Media is not purchased on a rating point system, but rather on impressions, where each impression counts as a potential for an ad to be seen.  Because the very nature of digital is to be highly measurable, negotiations are often more matter of fact, and added value either comes not as often or as very light compared to what you see in offline media.  This is because, for the most part, advertisers and the industry as a whole believe that going digital means not expecting a significant under or over delivery (broadcast usually considers an over/under delivery of 10% as the benchmark where makegoods are given from the vendor).

But what we’ve seen this past year more than anything is that impressions simply aren’t enough.  An ad can be placed on site and can technically seen, but what if it’s not?  What if a person went to the wrong site, or clicked directly out of the ad, or even scrolled before the page even loaded?  The ad still counts as an impression but it was never viewed.  That’s where viewability comes in, arguably one of 2015’s most important buzzwords.

What Is a Viewable Impression?

A viewable impression is destined to be the new form of digital media currency that will replace served impressions.  To quote an article from the IAB, “The industry standard… calls for desktop display ads to be considered viewable if 50% of their pixels are in view for a minimum of one second and for desktop video that standard is 50% for 2 seconds. In addition, the standard stipulates that for larger desktop ad units, 30% of pixels in view for 1 second constitutes a Viewable ad.  Custom ad units and important elements of sponsorships are not consistently measurable today. The measurement standard and the technology are still evolving.”  So in simpler terms, a viewable impression is an impression that will count ONLY if they are in viewable range of a site for a specific period of time.  Viewability-39-percent

Why Is This Important?

This shift into viewable impressions means two things: the first is that is allows advertisers to be efficient with their inventory purchased.  Although it varies by campaign, plenty of impressions are considered “wasted” when they’ve been served but not viewed.  We as advertisers (thanks to these things called “privacy laws”) can not see when a person has their eyeballs looking at our ad, as much as we’d love to know that.  But what we can do, is trace user behavior on a site and determine by that whether or not a served as was really viewed.  Viewable impressions means less media waste and more accurate portrayals of how well our delivery numbers are doing, woot!

The second important aspect that comes out of this media shift is accountability for the vendors.  With the growing concern over data privacy in the US, it’s becoming increasingly important for advertisers to know exactly how well their campaigns did with a specific vendor.  While the optimist in us all wants to believe our vendors will deliver as they report, some larger data companies are making it harder for third party auditors to review campaign data to see if what was claimed in a report actually did happen.  Regardless, a viewable impression means more accountability for a vendor, because if hypothetically all the ads were served, but say, 50% were actually viewed, that’s a completely different window into campaign performance.

While today the IAB is calling for 70% of all measurable impressions to be considered for viewable standard (because 100% viewability is not at this time possible with our capabilities) it is only a stepping stone on the path of total viewability.  The era of purchasing digital and having the inventory and negotiations be “matter of fact” are ending.  Accountability and standardization are finally coming into the digital world, and it means positive  changes not only in the way we measure ad impressions, but also in the way we can leverage delivery as a negotiating tactic when selecting our media partners.

Cost/Benefit Analysis

All that being said, we are not buying inventory for most of our clients based on a “Cost Per Viewable Impression” yet. We still purchase inventory on a Cost Per Thousand (CPM) rate and we keep an eye on our vendors performance with a viewability report. If our vendors are well below our threshold for comfort with viewable impressions we will discuss with them the need to increase performance. We also look at our existing cost per conversion for the campaign and how the overall performance for the campaign relates to our viewable impressions. If our cost per conversion is performing well, we aren’t going to insist our clients purchase only viewable impressions and increase their media cost (and diluting their actual media spend) just we have a good metric to report. If we strategically believe that our cost per conversions are high and if our viewable impressions were better then we may have a case for buying only viewable impressions and seeing our overall impression count in the media plan go down, but theoretically see our conversions go up because we’re getting more viewable impressions.

This theory has not been tested. All the talk about viewable impressions and how important they are is great, in theory, and another case in yet another long line of digital media folks painting themselves into a corner on how measurement is the end all be all for digital media. But, if we don’t do an analysis on the true efficiency of our media dollars we’re just trying to do more with less. The more layers we build on to a media spend, the more the actual media budget gets reduced and overall delivery and results will surely take a hit.