The online ad industry has been slow to move away from click-throughs and impressions as a standard. Ad exchange WebSpectator claims its newly MRC-accredited guaranteed time slot will help move them in the right direction.
The viewability of digital ads remains somewhat of a sore point for the online ad industry. Market participants recognize advertisers' needs for a more satisfying metric than click-throughs and impressions, which provide no evidence of whether users actually saw and engaged with an ad, but the industry has been slow to change.
Ad exchange WebSpectator is the latest vendor to get into the fray with a new guaranteed time slot (GTS) metric that it says will put the selling of display ads more on par with the television industry by allowing publishers to sell premium time slots.
The metric was approved by the Media Rating Council, a nonprofit industry group that audits and accredits media measurement services, in January.
"What the market wants to know was if the ad was actually in front of users' eyes and for how long," says Andre Parreira, chief executive (CEO) of Santa Monica, California-based WebSpectator. "If you can buy face time with the consumer, then you only need pay for what you get."
Industry Still Waiting on a Standard
It has been clear since at least early 2011, when industry bodies the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), the Four As (American Association of Advertising Agencies), and the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) began an effort to define an industry-wide standard for viewable impressions called the 3MS initiative, that the metrics for online advertising must change.
"The 3MS initiative came from the recognition that brand marketers are suffering from a lack of measurement tools that facilitate cross-platform media buying," says Sherrill Mane, senior vice president of research, analytics, and measurement with the IAB.
Lacking an equivalent to the television industry's Gross Ratings Points (GRP) - which multiplies the percentage of people who see an ad by the average number of spots they were shown - makes digital hard to integrate into a combined media campaign, she notes.
And while not the main focus of the 3MS initiative, Mane concedes that moving toward a viewability standard will "lend credibility and reduce some of the fraud," in the market. Vendor Solve Media estimates, for example, that in 2014, click fraud could cost advertisers $11.6 billion in lost revenue.
The IAB has also developed standards for what it calls a secure i-frame, a secure transparent container for content traveling across the Internet. Current i-frames create obstacles to determining whether content is viewable and legitimate, because they block people from viewing the actual content.
A finished standard for viewability has not yet been published and is only expected in the first half of 2014. Still, a consensus has emerged that a viewable impression can be defined as 50 percent of an ad viewed for one second, and that ads may only be served when they are guaranteed to be in view.
Vendors Not Waiting
In the meantime, some vendors haven't waited on the standards boards and have put forth their own versions of a viewable impression. The MRC has already accredited 11 vendors, including Alenty, Integral Ad Science, RealVu, Google Active View, DoubleVerify, Spider.io, and comScore vCE.
Recent entrant WebSpectator, however, goes farther than the IAB definition of viewability with the first metric to introduce time as a dimension into digital media. The only other digital asset that does this is video, since advertisers can monitor how long users hang in after pushing play.
To do so it utilizes WebSockets, a Web technology that makes it possible to open an interactive communication session between a user's browser and a server that renders a website on a viewer's screen. The technology enables messages to be sent to a server and to receive event-driven responses without having to poll the server for a reply.
Widgets on participating advertisers' dashboards tell them how many people are connected to their website, how many are actively scrolling and engaging with the content, and how many are actually looking at the ads. It also shows them the number of real-time users per ad unit, ranked by engagement.
The GTS metric, Parreira says, guarantees 100 percent viewability for the whole time visitors are engaged with the ad, which enables vendors to sell digital ads in 20-second time slots, or four minutes of each day, similar to the TV model. If a user leaves the room, the ad is "off the clock."
Advertisers, for their part, only get charged if ads are viewed and the ads rotate based on how a user interacts with the page. The ads are also purchased programmatically.
"This gives advertisers an increased incentive to shift TV ad dollars to digital with WebSpectator, now that they can track and understand the effectiveness of their branding efforts with important target audiences," says Parreira.
The metric has been tested by Brazilian ISP iG, a subsidiary of Brazil Telecom, as well as by West Hollywood, California-based engage:BDR, a display, mobile, and video ad network whose president and CEO Ted Dhanik is the former vice president of strategic marketing at myspace.com.
Although he says it is still only a small percentage of the ads sold within their network, Dhanik believes a move in that direction is inevitable.
"There is a lot of wasted advertising. You are on a page and there are impressions below the fold you don't see. Advertisers must pay for those impressions. GTS is able to tell when the impression is in view," he says.
"If you are selling time slots, it becomes a compelling conversation," says Dhanik. "You are turning below-the-fold slots into usable inventory." From the publisher's standpoint that means they can better monetize their inventory, and advertisers only buy what is viewed.
Internal engage:BDR data have shown that out of 10,000 impressions recorded using the new GTS, there were nearly 1 million impressions launched but only 10,000 impressions recorded, according to Dhanik. Why? The guaranteed time slot never hit 30 seconds.
"You see how much waste there is," he says. "In a system based on clicks, you call that 1 million impressions and advertisers get billed for 1 million impressions."
While that reduction in inventory may sound scary to publishers, WebSpectator maintains that using the new metric actually increases revenue for publishers since they can sell premium slots. Dhanik wouldn't comment specifically on that but Brazilian ISP iGhas stated that its CPM rates rose from between $1 and $1.50 to around $18, for example, because of the ability to sell premium time slots.
Kevin Lee, CEO of digital marketing company Didit (and a ClickZ columnist), says another layer of confirmation of top of ad viewability is a welcome change.
"Advertisers all the way from the premium guaranteed inventory purchasers to the programmatic premium and RTB buyers all want the assurances that they get what they pay for. Knowing that an ad appears both above the fold and that the user was given ample opportunity to see the ad for a guaranteed period of time, is important," he says.
But he points to a new frontier for viewability - social media - that hasn't even been explored. Many analytics show reach for impressions for earned social media or paid social media when the likelihood of an actual impression is very low. "The display media category, including video and mobile ads, is dealing with their issues of viewability now finally. Social media needs to be next," says Lee.
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Mary Lisbeth D'Amico is a freelance writer based in Jersey City who frequently covers digital marketing, social media, tech startups, and venture capital. She has contributed to a wide range of publications including The Wall Street Journal, Business Week, Red Herring, and Real Deals. Find her on Twitter at @mldamico.
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