Viewability is an innocent-sounding term that has the entire digital media business in a lather. Ever since a 2014 Google study documented that 52 percent of ad impressions actually were not seen by users, viewability has been a front-burner issue for marketers and publishers alike.
It’s easy to see why. Total media ad spending in the U.S. will reach $184 billion this year, according to researcher eMarketer, and digital accounts for nearly one-third of that total. Its share is only going to get bigger, so there’s a lot riding on the viewability issue.
Ultimately, everyone loses if the digital ad industry can’t deliver on viewability expectations:
- Users don’t see messages that at least some of them might find useful or they click away early on from unsatisfactory video ads that still get counted as having been seen.
- Businesses pay for ads that don’t reach the level of audiences that were promised.
- Publishers earn the wrath of marketers, who pay back with low CPMs.
The digital platforms of local newspapers serve up billions of ad impressions monthly, putting these publishers right in the middle of the issue. To find out how they’re responding, I spoke with Tobias Bennett, a former McClatchy ad executive who is the advertising expert at the Local Media Consortium (LMC). The LMC represents close to 70 newspapers and other publishers whose more than 1,650 platforms serve up nearly 500 million ad impressions every 24 hours.
How do the LMC and its publisher members size up the viewability issue?
On the whole, we see viewability as a natural next step in the evolution of digital marketing, and one that is well-warranted. Widespread adoption of a viewable-based digital ad economy only stands to benefit premium publishers in the long run as the glut of garbage inventory that makes up a large percentage of the ecosystem is more appropriately valued, or devalued for that matter.
One thing that I think gets lost in all the noise surrounding viewability is that premium publishers, with stringent ad fraud policies and preventative measures, have paid a hefty price as a result of the general lack of quality inventory. We’ve unfairly been lumped in with this group of bad actors and our CPMs have borne this out over time. All digital banner inventory is not alike, and we’re confident that the premium nature of what our membership brings to the table will have them well-positioned when the dust settles.
The Google study on viewability found that news sites are among those with the lowest viewability, ranking 25th among 26 content categories. What’s LMC’s response?
It’s incumbent upon marketing outlets to ensure that they’re doing everything they can to maximize the value that they bring to advertisers, and now we have tools that can show us exactly where we’re falling down. In the transition away from our legacy past, there have certainly been growing pains as local media companies have had to explore any and all opportunities to grow digital revenue. One of the bad practices that arose was the loading up of pages with way too many ad positions.
What we haven’t done, at least in the case of our membership, was to allow that quest for revenue to affect the premium nature of the content they provide, putting our industry in a very strong position as the digital economy matures and clickbait gimmickry is more effectively identified and marginalized. As for the inventory offered via the LMC Exchange, viewability has been at the forefront of our efforts since day one. Our initial offering featured nothing but above-the-fold inventory, which we knew averaged in the neighborhood of 65 percent viewability.
At the recent LMC all-hands meeting in Denver, your partner Google gave a “what-to-do” presentation about viewability. What were Google’s suggestions?
For the most part, I think the suggestions Google brought to the membership were mostly common sense, albeit maybe not so commonly viewed through the lens of improving the quality of ad inventory. From a page templating perspective, they suggested tactics that ranged from moving ad units away from the very top of the page to moving away from wider ads with minimal depth and toward deeper ads whose likelihood of remaining on screen for a sufficient time period is increased.
The other suggestions, while possibly foreign to those with a focus on revenue generation, were mostly UX 101. They highlighted how page weight and performance are the key drivers of viewability. Concepts like a streamlined ad stack, engineered to minimize pass-backs as well as lazy loading of ad positions, have long been embraced by the more technically focused teams in our organizations as means to improve page load speed. These ideas are now beginning to resonate on the revenue side as the spotlight on viewability gets brighter. The quest for better mobile performance and improved viewability is bringing both sides of the house together promoting dialogue and priorities that are more closely aligned than I’ve seen in quite some time.
Gannett has introduced its Gravity video ad product to achieve a better user viewing experience and also provide data that can better measure an ad’s viewability. It issues ad cost refunds if an ad doesn’t meet minimum viewing standards. Is LMC working on anything like Gravity?
The LMC always has an eye on new and emerging ad units that would benefit our membership. The focus at this time is on the more foundational elements that play a part in viewability and ensuring that our members are armed with all of the information they need in order to ensure the health of their digital properties for the long run.
Fraud in viewability has been alleged by some critics. Are LMC publishers clear of such allegations?
I’m not aware of any allegations leveled against any of our members.
Is LMC confident that it’s acting on viewability issues sufficiently to meet marketers’ concerns?
Very confident. Along with our education/communication campaign with the membership at large, we recently enhanced the viewability standards that must be met in order to be eligible for participation in the LMC Exchange. We have a strong commitment from all involved to ensure the overall quality of the inventory available via our exchange and we see the results of that commitment in the feedback we get from the buy side, as well as their growing demand for our inventory.
Tom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.