Why The New York Times Is Seeing Fewer Ad Impressions

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The New York Times is "optimizing" its website to make sure its ads meet the Media Ratings Council viewability standard, executives told Wall Street investors last week. Although the move is one that marketers will certainly welcome, it could slow the growth of the Times' digital-ad revenue, which climbed 11% year-over-year during the first quarter.

Here's what Times CEO Mark Thompson told investors about viewability:

"We support viewability and, in common with other publishers, we are in the process of optimizing our website to meet the new standard. While we see some reduction in overall ad impressions as we cycle through the change, viewability plays to The Times's fundamental strength in engagement. Any short-term impact on revenue will depend on how the market responds, and we'll know more about that in a few months' time, but in the long run we expect viewability to help, rather than hinder, our digital advertising growth story."

Any downturn in digital-ad sales at the Times will have a bruising effect. Despite the double-digit gains on the digital side of the business, print ad sales dipped 11% during the first quarter. That led to an overall decline in advertising revenue of 6%.

Mr. Thompson's statement, which came towards the beginning of a call with investors to discuss the Times first-quarter earnings, falls roughly in line with publishing trends around ad viewability. Tweaking or redesigning websites to meet this standard, for instance, is a trend among publishers.

Ad viewability refers to whether people visiting a web or mobile site, or watching a digital video, can actually see an ad. Last year, the MRC issued a standard that said an ad is considered viewable on a desktop computer when half its pixels are on a person's browser for at least one second. For video ads, the time on screen is two seconds. The MRC is expected to issue guidelines around mobile viewability later this year.

As publishers have sought to implement this standard -- which many marketers don't feel is strict enough -- some fear that it will dent their ads sales, at least in the short term. As strange as it may sound, marketers are often charged for ads that never actually appear on peoples' screens. These ads would go away in a move to transacting on viewability.

Optimistic publishers, however, say that the shift will ultimately benefit them because it will lead to a limited supply of high-impact, in-view ads, which can fetch higher ad rates. Of course, persuading advertisers to pay more for ads that they already assumed people were seeing could be a hard sell.