As the old adage goes, if a tree falls in the woods, but no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? The same concept applies to online advertising except is goes like this. If an ad loads on the web, but isn’t in view for anyone to see it, does it ever really make an impression? For those familiar with the space, this is the question of what denotes a “viewable impression”. For those not familiar with the space, it is exactly what it sounds like. If an advertisement loads on a page, but is never in view on the user’s screen, does the advertiser really have to pay for it? The answer is yes unfortunately. comScore recently did a study across 12 premium advertising campaigns. One of the measurements was the amount of impressions that went unviewed, and the results were shocking. 31% of “impressions” were never actually in view on the users’ screens. This means these brands were paying for almost 1 out of every 3 ads to be shown to no one. As bothersome as this figure is, it’s also exciting because the space has a lot of room to grow, and those that want to push the industry forward have the ability and opportunity to do so. There have been several suggestions for how to fix this problem. One idea is to only have CPM (advertiser pays for each ad loaded) ads above the fold (in view on the screen without scrolling down). The ads below the fold would be CPC (advertiser only pays when their ad is clicked on), thus eliminating the need for viewable impression metrics. Unfortunately, this idea is missing the point. An ad below the fold should be just as valuable as one above the fold, as long as it’s actually seen.
In my opinion, the IAB could/should fix things pretty quickly if they made it standard practice for all ad tags to not load until it’s within view on the screen. This route certainly wouldn’t be without its headaches, such as how ad servers register this, but it would put all ads on a level playing field. Logically, most of the push for standardizing viewable impressions has come from the advertiser side of things, who don’t want to pay for ads that go unseen. I would argue that the push should be coming from the publisher side of things instead. There is a drastic gap between direct sales CPMs and programmatic buying CPMs. In direct deals, the advertiser knows where the ads are going, and know they are within view on the screen. Until the advertiser has this same confidence in the programmatic space, prices will always be significantly lower. Publishers, and the companies that represent them such as ad networks, can change this by only charging for viewable impressions. It may sound like the publisher would be leaving money on the table, but that’s not the case. Over time their inventory would inherently become more valuable, and they would be making more money for fewer impressions. SAY Media is the only publisher-facing company I’ve seen doing this, and I applaud them for it. I imagine they are using a similar technology to the one I mentioned earlier regarding the IAB. Rarely is there such a huge opportunity for companies to improve a multi-billion dollar industry. I think 2012 will be the year of viewable impressions, and I’m excited to watch it unfold.