November 12, 2013

Viewability + Audience: Why Digital Ad Growth Depends on the Link Between Pixels and People

Jeff Hackett

I was lucky enough to join some of digital advertising’s best and brightest last week at the IAB’s Ad Ops Summit and comScore’s own Media Seller Roundtable, and those in attendance were treated to some valuable perspective about ad viewability and audience buying. I’ve spent the last 15 years in this industry and have seen quite a bit of change over this time (and not just the color of my hair, mind you!)  And like many of you, I’ve tried to keep a close pulse on the growth of ad viewability and audience buying. In addition to meeting with our client partners on a near-daily basis, l also do my best to keep up on the latest news and analysis in AdAge, AdExchanger, Digiday, and other industry publications. But, nothing beats the value of live in-person dialogues and group interactions.

Allow me to share what I learned.

To me, the evolution and adoption of ad viewability and audience buying ranks up there with the first set of AAAA/IAB Terms &Conditions that debuted in 2001 and the first-ever IAB Standard Ad Sizes, also from 2001, as the industry’s most significant game-changers. With all of the changes in digital advertising that I could have compared to, why did I choose these two, you ask? Because while they may not have been perfect or popular at the onset, they leveled the playing field, gave folks common ground to work from, and ultimately proved essential in the development of digital. Not to mention, they are still being used and refined today. 

With all of the changes afoot today from automated buying to real-time-bidding to the explosion of smartphone and tablet usage, there’s a general recognition that it’s once again time for the industry to recalibrate. Top advertiser brands are paying real attention to and investing serious money in digital advertising. Part of our hard work over the past two decades is paying off! But, let’s not pop the proverbial champagne just yet -- we still have plenty of work to do. There’s a glut of display inventory currently online and today’s technology tells us much of it never has the opportunity to be seen by a human. We also know today that the promise of audience buying is real and in use today, but not always able to live up to the hype. Are you really sure that cookie or ADID represents the elusive, young male aged 18-34 that you so desperately seek?

So do folks believe that today’s new accountability metrics like ad viewability and audience validation can help?


And what some might find surprising is that it isn’t just the buy side who believes this. The sell side, which admittedly has been on the less desirable side of disruption thus far, is also beginning to embrace these metrics. But – and there’s always a but – last week’s events helped cement a growing realization for me that these two metrics (viewability and audience delivery) must not be measured in a vacuum separately from each other.

Today’s advertisers want to know if their new Rising Star ad unit had the opportunity to be seen by their target audience. They don’t just want to know if their ad had the opportunity to be seen on the page. And they also don’t just want to know if their ad reached a web page visited by their target audience. These two critical measurements must be done in tandem, from the same tag and the same counting methodology, if we are to fundamentally answer the question of effective campaign delivery. We must be able to link viewable pixels to the people behind those pixels. Then, and only then, can digital ad performance accurately be assessed.

If you don’t believe me, just ask my good friend, Angelina Eng, VP of Digital Media Operations at Carat. She and I planned some Unilever campaigns together back around the time that those aforementioned IAB guidelines first hit (read as, before any of Jeff’s hair turned color!), and I was lucky enough to join her on stage at the IAB Ad Ops Summit last week. Angelina underscored the need of comprehensive viewability and audience measurement. If agencies want to accurately gauge viewability and understand which audiences were reached, what is the sense in measuring them separately and then trying to reconcile those metrics from different systems? That viewpoint really seemed to resonate, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my digital ad career, it is that when Angelina speaks, folks listen!  We heard this same refrain from the media sellers at our forum last week as well. 

Angelina and I also discussed on stage another critical aspect to this story, one involving humans and machines. 

Let’s start with the machines. In order for these new accountability metrics to fully realize their value and be adopted, the support systems must be in place for both the buyers and sellers. These systems are just now starting to enter our space, and it will take time before their full value is realized. Progress in building out this mission critical infrastructure requires not only significant engineering advancements, but also a willingness on the part of key players to agree to work together.

When comScore first brought validated Campaign Essentials (vCE) to market back in 2011, we had to pioneer viewability measurement technology. Campaign measurement has served the buy side particularly well from the outset and helped many marketers produce superior digital ROI, but the sell side has not been adequately equipped to effectively manage to these new accountability metrics. The sell side needs an enterprise level, total inventory knowledge platform from which to create optimal ad packages, redesign pages, and understand how their users vary by demographic at an ad slot, creative group, or section basis. In realizing this market need, comScore has worked diligently in recent months to bring to market validated Media Essentials as the first solution to address this need.

Now for the human side of the story. No matter how many systems or platforms that we introduce into the market, they will never replace the need for human communication. Buyers must openly share their objectives, goals, and KPI’s for the campaign. Sellers must have a chance to evaluate, prepare, and optimize against these criteria. And both sides also need to be realistic with their expectations. Expecting 100% of ads to have an opportunity to be seen, or 100% of impressions to reach the intended target, just isn’t going to happen with today’s technology.

However, with proper communication from the start, the deal can be done in a way that works for the buyer and seller. Too often, it seems, we hear stories of mid-or-late campaign surprises where it is “too late to fix” whatever the issue is. As George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Here is a guide we recently published that highlights some best practices for buyer and seller communication as it relates to viewability measurement and audience guarantees.

It’s time for the buy side and the sell side to stop talking past each other and start speaking the same language. Clearly based on what I learned last week the desire is there and comScore is going to do our part to help.  The sooner the digital ad industry evolves to the common language of viewability and audience, the faster the dollars will follow.

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