At the end of a digital ad campaign, clients and agencies review how it performed, and if it performed worse than expected, that's when the trouble begins. Not always -- but often enough -- disappointing performance becomes a matter of finger-pointing.
The client blames the agency. The creative wasn't good enough, engaging enough, unique or compelling. Video spots were too long or not long enough. Banners weren't sufficiently eye-catching. The agency blames the client. The product isn't exciting or good. The market research was insufficient. The timing was all wrong. Oddly, through all of these arguments over the what and the how of the campaign performance, the one thing that is never blamed is the where.
Think about it -- the best product in the world, with the best ad in the world, won't sell if nobody sees those ads. And there are places all over the internet where ads aren't seen. Just ask Google.
1. Research publishers and their advertisers
It's easy enough to find out who the top digital publishers are, and to identify the top advertising spenders. Observe how and where the top advertisers' ads are presented on these publishers' pages; eventually, patterns will emerge. Is there a dominant location or size that seems to be used across platforms? Does one publisher run its video ads over the top of content, and another only play videos that are scrolled over in the margin? It's not that dud campaigns can't run on the big sites, or that big agencies can't produce boring content for their big clients, but in all, the track record for the big publisher/big brand mashup will likely be better than other pairings might be.
2. Gut-check publishers' viewability
The IAB defines viewability as "a minimum of 50% of pixels in view for a minimum of one second." If the publisher you're in talks with has no ads visible on the home page when it loads, there's literally no ad viewability on that page -- or if there is, it requires that a user scroll beyond what initially appears.
If you load a web page and don't immediately see the ads on it -- and marketing is your business -- it's probably safe to assume that nobody else sees them either. Trust your gut and look at different publishers.
3. Arm buyers with data
Whether the person coordinating a buy gets an agency paycheck, works for the brand or comes from a third-party buying service, both the agency and the client should make sure the buyer has any and all information he might need before buying even one placement. I'm not referring to the kind of demographic data that all buyers have available -- such as who usually visits a site and whom a given product is meant for and how to pair the two -- but instead, any available data on site load times, recent outages and other performance metrics that can affect whether an ad is ever seen by consumers.
If a site's menu loads before its ads do, for instance, a visitor might click away to a different section before the expensive home page ads have even loaded, and I for one have seen video ads that failed to load on time, leaving five seconds of black screen before the viewer clicks "skip" and moves on to the desired content.
Any data on what consumers do when they visit a website is also helpful. For a fee, there are data providers who can provide traffic not just on a site's home page but on its various landing pages, and how people arrive at them. Knowing that NYT.com visitors most frequently click on "world," for instance, is also knowing that their eyes are immediately drawn to the ad displayed immediately above it, flanking the Times' masthead.
4. Stop placing blame
Ultimately, before you can pin a campaign's poor performance on the creative that accompanied it, or the product it featured, it's important to consider the possibility that no one saw the ad because it was simply missed. Arming media buyers with the knowledge they need to prevent unviewable ads means arming yourself with more power to succeed.