The ongoing debate around viewability is a testament to the industry’s fascinating inability to organise itself around common agreed standards. Here, James Ranson, Commercial Director UK & International at Vibrant Media, explains how the industry should be trying harder to raise the bar to meet the expectations expected by some of the buy-side’s most powerful and influential players.
When the world’s largest ad-buying firm and one of the world’s top advertisers both say that the industry agreed viewability standards for video are just not good enough, it would be lunacy not to listen. Yet more than six months after GroupM and Unilever launched their own video viewability standards in October 2014, only one company came out publicly in support of those standards, and yes it’s the company I work for, Vibrant Media [Editor’s note: as far as we can verify, this seems to be factually correct, although other vendors do say their formats are 100 percent viewable] . The vast majority are still measuring their video viewability based on the Media Ratings Council standards supported by the US Internet Advertising Bureau – 50 per cent of the video frame pixels appearing on a screen for 2 seconds. Even on this basis, nearly half of video ads served on the overwhelming majority of desktop and mobile websites never had a chance to be seen.
According to the GroupM standards, four criteria must be satisfied to count as a chargeable view: the video ad player must be 100 per cent in view on the websites where they’re being shown; at least 50 per cent of the video ad must be played when in view; the video player’s sound must be turned on throughout viewing; and the user must actively initiate the video ad rather than the ad starting automatically. Granted the standards are more stringent than the MRC’s, but it’s only reasonable for an advertiser paying for an ad to expect it to be seen.
When readying to watch online video content, consumers generally navigate video players to be 100 percent in view on their screens. That means the vast majority of pre-roll should be 100 percent in view. However, many pre-roll providers rely on their ads auto-playing. They will find it a challenge to fulfil the GroupM standards which require users to initiate video ads. What’s more, those that do the right thing by consumers by providing a skip function also risk losing out if users rush into the video content before 50 percent of the ad creative has played.
That said, new formats that prioritise viewability are being built that can regularly achieve the GroupM standards. For example, various vendors (including Vibrant) now offer formats that expand into view from between paragraphs of editorial only when 100 per cent of the unit can appear on the user’s screen. Once initiated, these ads only play when the video player remains in view by an amount that fits each advertiser’s own standards – for GroupM, that’s 100 per cent, but other clients may be happy with just over 50 per cent in view, for example. The ad format automatically pauses if the consumer scrolls the video out of view to a degree outside of the advertisers’ standards. If a video ad play doesn’t meet the client’s viewability standards, they simply aren’t charged for that ad impression.
While it would be easy to trash the competition for sticking to the MRC viewability standards, when looking at the analysis of the viewability standards across Europe in IAB Europe’s February 2015 whitepaper, a less objectionable explanation emerges: right now, the reality is that it’s just easier to establish a common viewability currency based on the MRC standards.
Most of the digital advertising industry bodies across Europe still haven’t defined viewability standards at all. Those that have haven’t defined standards for video. Yet where standards are being used, industry players seem to be defaulting to the MRC standards despite higher standards being available. According to the IAB Europe whitepaper, the Netherlands is adopting the MRC standards to promote consistency in the industry. France recognises that the MRC standards are too low, especially for video, yet many French media agencies and sales houses already use the MRC standards. Most surprising is Austria, where many publishers and ad providers have been reporting on viewability since 2010, and frequently under more stringent guidelines than the MRC’s. However, following the US’s lead, IAB Austria has published guidelines based on the MRC’s guidelines, albeit with particular consideration given to viewability of other market specific formats.
The MRC’s effective first-mover advantage, the greater publicity those standards received, and the adoption by such a massive proportion of the global ad market (the US) means that countering the momentum of those standards is extremely difficult. The MRC standard had a two-year head start over the GroupM standards. Of course, the ad industry needed some time to acclimatise to both reporting and requiring viewability and it’s only fair that the MRC standard was given a chance. Yet during that period the MRC standard has taken root and populated.
It’s not too late to raise the standards, however. IAB Europe has started to tackle the issue of viewability. If other ad companies prove that more stringent standards are attainable, there’s a chance that IAB Europe can encourage a large proportion of the global market to adopt guidelines that deliver a qualitatively better video ad experience for advertisers, publishers and users. The MRC guidelines have been a great first step, but the current swathe of consultations about viewability around European industry bodies offers a chance of a giant leap towards 100 per cent viewability standards.