Over the past few months, a growing number of ad buyers have started insisting on purchasing only mobile ads that people can actually see, say media sales executives.
August 20, 2015 — The Wall Street Journal Over the past few months, a growing number of ad buyers have started insisting on purchasing only mobile ads that people can actually see, say media sales executives.
The insistence when it comes to mobile ads follows an industry wide push over the past year or so aimed at ensuring that marketers only pay for viewable ads on desktops.
Problem is, the advertising industry’s leading measurement authority, the Media Rating Council, which audits research firms ranging from Nielsen to Rentrak, has yet to accredit any third-party technology firms to track mobile ad viewability. (Over a dozen companies have been accredited for desktop ads.) Many ad buyers and sellers say that the mobile data available today from companies such as Moat and Integral Ad Science is far from perfect.
But with mobile accounting for 50% or more of traffic to some major websites, advertisers don’t want to wait for mobile viewabilty to get sorted out. They want to run mobile ads now, and they only want to pay for ones that people have a chance to see. There’s a lot of money at stake, with mobile ad spending expected to exceed $28 billion in the U.S. this year, according to eMarketer. The concern is that money may be wasted on mobile in one of two ways.
On the one hand, advertisers don’t want to pay for mobile ads that people never have a chance to see, either because people scroll past them before they are fully in view on a given screen, or because these ads technically fail to render for whatever reason.
On the flip side, media companies are concerned that the mobile ads they are delivering that actually are viewable aren’t being given credit because the tracking technology is flawed or because the way the technology is being implemented doesn’t count mobile ad campaigns accurately.
Ad buyers’ insistence on purchasing only viewable ads before standards and tracking technology have been established is causing big headaches for media companies. Those companies say that because vendors haven’t been accredited to track mobile ads and because tracking mobile ad viewabiliy is inherently different on mobile devices versus desktop computers, they are faced with all sorts of discrepancies–and potential lost revenue–when tracking the performance of ad campaigns.
“It’s a struggle,” said Monica Ho, head of marketing at the mobile ad firm xAd. Her team frequently runs mobile ad campaigns, only to hear from a third party that 50% of the ads they believe are being delivered are deemed non-viewable. “That’s significant. But we are being told that if we don’t use some sort of mobile viewability guarantee we won’t be on campaigns.”
Back in May, the MRC issued interim guidance on measuring mobile ads for viewability. Essentially, the MRC’s message for the ad market was this: we are working toward establishing metrics to track mobile ad viewability. At this point, no vendors are accredited to do so. In the meantime, you should count ads in mobile browsers as viewable the same way you count desktop display ads: if and only if at least 50% of the ad is visible for at least one second (two seconds for video ads).
However, in that guidance, the MRC also introduced a new metric that is unique to ads that appear in mobile applications. It said that ads that are “loaded” in apps, but may be visible for too short a time or have too little of the ad on screen to be considered “viewable” to consumers, should not be counted as viewable in ad buys.
Needless to say, it’s complicated.
“We always believe buyers and sellers are best served by using MRC-accredited data providers,” said David Gunzerath, the MRC’s senior vice president and associate director. “That said, we haven’t said that the marketplace shouldn’t transact on mobile viewable impressions. However, should they do so, all parties involved in the transaction should recognize that the methods for producing the measurements have not been subject to MRC review, and therefore there’s no assurance as to the data’s quality or reliability.”
The MRC says it expects to accredit some companies to track mobile viewability by the end of the year.
But even Facebook, one of the biggest players in mobile, isn’t waiting until then. The company recently started telling marketers they can elect to only pay for ads that are 100% viewable on a person’s screen. In that case, the mobile viewability data comes straight from Facebook.
Of course, not every individual Web publisher has Facebook’s clout. Most rely on data from a third party when selling ads, particularly for tracking viewability. Jason Kint, chief executive at the Web publishing trade organization Digital Content Next, said that while his group fully supports the push toward selling only viewable mobile ads, it’s premature to do so without any sort of mobile viewability guarantee from an accredited vendor. “Mobile just isn’t there yet and needs work before [ad deals] can happen,” he said.
Interestingly, there are some in the mobile ad industry who believe that viewabilty isn’t that big an issue on mobile and that some ad agencies are creating a problem where there isn’t one.
“The viewabilty issue is starting to show up for everyone, though I don’t think it makes much sense in mobile,” said Tom Kenney, president of the mobile advertising firm Verve Mobile. “It’s not really a big problem, and the data is not even close to accurate.”
Lisa Marino, chief executive at RockYou, which helps deliver ads to mobile games, says that right now more people are spending their mobile time within apps, where viewability shouldn’t be a challenge. And the majority of advertisers spending big budgets in mobile at the moment are mobile companies–like game developers–who only pay when their ads drive people to download apps. So they don’t care about mobile ad viewability anyway, she argues.
“There is no below-the-fold on my phone, so viewability is a much less acute issue,” said Ms. Marino.
According to comScore, in the U.S. , 87% of mobile consumption happens within apps versus 13% on the mobile Web.
For now, some publishers say they are trying to take viewability averages for desktop campaigns and projecting those numbers onto mobile campaigns, even though they see this methodology as flawed. Others say they are willing to sell mobile ads with suspect data, as long as overall that leads to larger digital ad spending going their way.
“I think the problem is that clients now have an expectation of viewable ads, so agencies cannot go back to them and say they cannot track mobile,” said one ad sales executive at a major media company.
And some ad sales executives are trying to resist inking deals that guarantee a certain number of viewabile mobile impressions as much as possible until the measurement for mobile viewabiltiy improves. “We push back,” said Geoff Schiller, chief revenue officer at Evolve Media.
GroupM, which has made some of the loudest noise about viewability to date, has been aggressive in asking for mobile viewability guarantees, say ad sales executives. Ari Bluman, GroupM’s chief digital investment officer said that while his agency is waiting for the MRC to set standards and accredit some vendors to track viewability, he applies a formula to estimate how many mobile ads are viewable in a given campaign.
Basically, if 70% of a campaign’s desktop impressions are tracking as being “viewable,” GroupM assumes that 70% of mobile ads delivered in that campaign are viewable. “It’s not an ideal world, and some publishers probably win and some lose [in the short term],” he said. “You have to do it one way or another until we get that MRC stamp of approval. This is in no way about trying to get over on anyone, it’s about trying to help digital grow.”
But until the MRC accredits a few vendors, it’s likely to be a bit messy.
“As long as the industry doesn’t have clear guidelines, it will continue to be the be the wild west,” said Scott Knoll, chief executive at Integral Ad Science (IAS), one of the vendors trying to solve this issue. “Measuring mobile in general is complicated and in-app even more so.”
As for the idea that viewability isn’t a big issue in mobile, IAS has found in research that 19% of ads in mobile apps are never in view. “So there is less of a problem with mobile, but I wouldn’t say a problem doesn’t exist,.” Mr. Knoll said.
Moat is another viewability vendor working furiously to master mobile. CEO Jonah Goodhart doesn’t agree with the thinking that viewability isn’t a big deal in mobile (he also doesn’t agree that companies like his can’t track it). He says that because of the way people quickly scroll through feeds on their mobile device, mobile ads can easily fail to load or fall “below the fold.”
In fact, Moat conducted a study in the second quarter of this year that found the in-view rate for mobile display ads was 43.8%, which is lower than the average for desktop display ads over the same period: 51.9%.
Clearly, the data on mobile viewabilty varies by vendor and by publisher, and many disagree on the extent of the problem, if there is one. Which all helps fuel the contention in the ad industry on this issue.
Mr. Goodhart argued that while apps tend to dominate mobile consumption at large, for many top media companies, mobile Web consumption is more significant since many people don’t opt to download apps for individual publications.
And with some media companies now seeing their mobile traffic soar, the problem is only going to get bigger.
“The reason the topic is still top of mind and will continue to be is that it hasn’t been solved,” he said. “If it was theoretical or wasn’t real, this would’ve gone away a long time ago.”
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