The purchase of ad space is not a perfect science. A TV commercial could air, but the viewer could be in the kitchen; a magazine reader might flip past the page; a pedestrian might not look up at a billboard. But at the very least, the broadcast actually appeared on the screen; the page was printed; and the billboard really did stand at the side of the road. Online, though, the question of whether ads had the chance to be seen is murkier.
"Viewability" has become a hot topic in the ad industry, as marketers pour more money into digital ads – and, increasingly, demand better measurements to determine whether those ads actually appeared in front of humans.
This sounds like a simple task, but according to data last year from comScore Inc., just 47.5 per cent of online ads in Canada were placed "in-view," meaning at least half of each ad was visible on a web page for one second or more. Google also released a study last year showing that less than half the ads it served were actually seen.
Now, some advertisers are beginning to push for a new currency. For years, ads have been bought on "cost per mille" or CPM, a price per thousand viewers. But in the digital environment, it might be time to change that price to CPH, or "cost per human."
That was the suggestion made by Khoi Truong, L'Oréal Canada's director of media and data optimization, at a gathering held last week in Toronto by the Association of Canadian Advertisers to discuss the issue. He wasn't the only one.
"It's time to start trading on viewability," Ricardo Martin, vice-president of marketing at Unilever Canada, said on stage at the event.
Better measurement was the promise of digital advertising. But the conversation around viewability has only become widespread in the past few years, partly because technology has improved the measurement that's possible, but also because of the way digital ad budgets have grown.
"It's only been two or three years since we've been able to measure the totality of the impressions," Mr. Martin said in an interview.
The opportunity in digital advertising is particularly high in Canada. This country is among the world's most active on the Internet.
Last year, Canadians spent more than 36 hours a month, on average, online just on their desktop computers; that's more time spent than any other country, according to comScore. Accounting for time spent on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, it is even more.
"The [digital ad] budgets are getting big enough now, you start to notice viewability is an issue," said Ron Lund, chief executive officer of the Association of Canadian Advertisers.
The Media Rating Council, a New York-based group, is responsible for accrediting companies that measure ad effectiveness. But even among accredited players, viewability measurement can differ widely.
"When you have different ways of measuring, you have to set some kind of baseline," Mr. Lund said.
The MRC has worked with an industry group called Making Measurement Make Sense – created by the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A's), the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) – to create more consistent standards. But some believe they aren't stringent enough.
Unilever, for example, said late last year that it wants higher standards for viewability, and that all of an ad – not just 50 per cent – must have the opportunity to be seen in order to count as viewable.
"This is an industry issue, and we have to work together for the benefit of the industry," Unilever's Mr. Martin said. "Advertisers can help by being aware of the problem, questioning the source of what they're buying – not just chasing the lowest [prices] but really being cautious about the source of what they're buying."
Viewability is a different issue from advertising fraud, which is the malicious use of bots that look like human web users clicking on pages. Advertisers sometimes pay for ads that are seen only by this "non-human traffic," and the fraud the bots enable is a major problem.
Viewability, on the other hand, is not generally a result of malicious action; it may be that an ad is delivered lower down on a page where a person never scrolls, or a user scrolls past an ad too quickly while searching out content. Advertisers are asking that ads have the opportunity to be seen the way they are in other media.
"That's the philosophy: If it's not viewed, there's no value to it," Mr. Martin said. Publishers that are better at demonstrating viewability on their sites will benefit from greater spending from advertisers such as Unilever, he added.
There is good news. As the industry has become more aware of the problem, better measurement has led to results. In 2013, just 44.4 per cent of ads were "in-view," according to comScore. Last year, that was up to 47.5 per cent. But as those numbers still represent more than half of the ads companies have paid for have gone to waste, clearly more work needs to be done on measurement.
"We're not yet at the point where it's a currency – which is what the U.S. is pushing hard toward, meaning people are buying on it," said comScore Canada president Brent Bernie. "But the publishers we're talking to are working hard to deal with it and change the way they do business. Clients will want to buy on this number. It's not if, it's when. … This is the year to do something about this, as opposed to just talk about it. We've talked a lot. This is important for the health of the industry."