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As Wendy's VP-digital and social media, Brandon Rhoten has spent the past decade trying to move the fast-food chain's TV ad budget online. It hasn't been easy.
"Moving dollars from traditional advertising to digital is not as effective because you can't guarantee the impression," Mr. Rhoten said. He added, "It's a hard sell to move from traditional to digital. It hurts our case when you have headlines reading 25% or 50% of impressions are never actually seen."
If a brand like Wendy's finds digital advertising to be a tough sell, that's a problem for major ad-supported digital media companies like Facebook that are counting on TV advertisers bringing their budgets online -- not to mention to mobile, where users are migrating far more quickly than marketers.
Just 44% of ads served on the mobile web during the fourth quarter met the Media Rating Council's viewability standard, according to an analysis by digital measurement firm Moat, which looks at data across more than 10,000 sites.
Now Facebook is working on a remedy. Along with the Media Rating Council, Nielsen, the Interactive Advertising Bureau and a host of brands and agencies, Facebook is trying to develop new measurement standards to make sure that ads running on smartphones and tablets or within publishers' vertical content feeds are only counted if they had an opportunity to be seen. (As recently as two weeks ago, an MRC spokeswoman told Ad Age that the group had "no workshops on mobile viewability scheduled as of yet.").
Wendy's, ZenithOptimedia, the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Nielsen, Digitas, Starcom MediaVest Group, IPG Mediabrands and L'Oreal are also involved in developing the new mobile and in-feed viewability standards.
The MRC hopes to have a draft of the mobile viewability standard ready for public comment in the fourth quarter of 2015, said George Ivie, CEO of the Media Rating Council.
The mobile viewability working group has an opportunity to set a standard before the mobile publishing landscape has fully matured. That could allow for a more widely accepted standard than the desktop one set last year that is commonly considered more of a starting point than something set in stone. And while the desktop viewability debate may have temporarily scared off some advertisers who spent money online without knowing what they were buying, the mobile viewability discussion could give comfort to advertisers that are new to mobile, burned by desktop or both.
"It's a tremendous opportunity to get it right from the get-go and an opportunity we don't want to miss given how much focus is put on getting mobile right…. It would be a huge miss not to tackle it," said DigitasLBi's chief investment officer Adam Shlachter.
There is no timeline yet for the in-feed viewability standard, Mr. Ivie said. The in-feed environment is more nuanced than the desktop/mobile web or mobile apps, so he's spent the past year talking with Facebook and checking out the social network's research "to understand how that environment works and whether a viewability standard is optimal," he said.
Last year the MRC signed off on a viewability standard for desktop ads. That standard requires a desktop banner ad to be at least 50% in view for at least one second, or two seconds if it's a video ad. The group working on the mobile and in-feed viewability standards are still in their early stages and have yet to draft specifics. However, the plan is to draft standards as clear as the desktop one. "We'll get an operable, quantifiable standard," Mr. Ivie said.
"I'm not obsessed with what the exact percentages are. I'm the guy in charge of the digital presence of the brand; I want someone to know we were there," Mr. Rhoten said.
"Our view, at least for right now, is to make sure the ad comes into view. Then once it's in view, do you have a minimum requirement in time or size," said Facebook's VP-measurement and insights Brad Smallwood.
Like many online publishers, it took time for Facebook to adopt even that view. Until a year ago Facebook didn't have a viewability requirement for its desktop ads. The company had measured its desktop ads once they were served, even if they never seen and even though its mobile ads have always been measured by the view.
Facebook doesn't measure a view according to the MRC's standard. Facebook counts an ad as viewed once it comes into view, regardless of how long it's actually in view. Because the MRC's desktop viewability standard applies to standardized display ads, Facebook follows the spirit of the law, if not the letter. Whether Facebook's standard should become the mobile or in-feed standards will be hashed out over the next several months as the group dives deeper into the issue.
"The question of the amount of time [an ad is in view], the amount of an ad [that is in view] and all that, that will vary. We don't have enough data on that yet, but we're working on it," Mr. Smallwood said.
Facebook has already come up with some data to inform that work. The company analyzed more than 12 billion anonymized desktop ad impressions that ran in the Facebook news feed last year. Based on that analysis, Facebook found that an ad is valuable for an advertiser once it is in-view, even if it only remains in view for less than a second.
Facebook's leadership role in developing the mobile and in-feed viewability standards might alarm those who don't think a major ad seller should have much influence over how ad buys are evaluated. But Mr. Ivie said that Facebook is only one of 150 members in the MRC's organization, which also include Google, Yahoo, ABC and NBC. "There isn't one organization within that list that can influence us," he said. "We're going to set the viewability standard."