But a software developer has come up with a solution that is garnering growing interest from the industry as a way to better ensure advertisers get the impressions for which they are paying.
The technology, developed by software developer Thinking Media Corp., New York, has caught the eye of powerful forces such as the American Association of Advertising Agencies, media buying powerhouse Western Initiative Media, the Advertising Research Foundation and Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide.
The issue of advertisers' getting what they pay for is especially important when dealing with rich media, which adds a premium to deliver a multimedia ad.
For example, rich-media developer Unicast, New York, charges advertisers using its technology only when rich-media messages are fully loaded and seen.
BROWSER VS. SERVER TRACKING
Thinking Media's ActiveTrack is a user-side tracking technology. It measures ad delivery through a Web browser using Java applet-tagged banners that transmit data back to ActiveTrack's database. Thinking Media sends the data to whomever is serving the ad to say it has loaded fully. Thus far, server-side ad tracking technology, which only counts the number of times a user calls up a Web page from a server, has dominated the online landscape. This is the kind of software used by third-party ad-serving companies such as AdKnowledge, Excite@Home's MatchLogic and NetGravity.
Even when people call up a page, they don't necessarily wait for all the ads and content to load; they could move on-and the advertiser may never know who did and did not see the ad.
SLOW LOADS PROMPT FAST EXIT
In February, Gerard Broussard, senior partner and co-director of media, metric and analytics at OgilvyOne, O&M's interactive media and direct marketing arm, met with Thinking Media President-CEO Owen Davis to analyze ActiveTrack's effectiveness. Their informal study of ActiveTrack's data showed users are more likely to exit slow-loading sites before a banner ad is displayed; the drop-off rate at which users abort pages with ads ranged from a low of 18% to a high of 42%.
Most banners had a 10- to 20-second viewing window before viewers left. The majority of click-throughs occurred within that time, but the longer ads are displayed, the higher the click-through rate. When people spend between 60 and 85 seconds viewing pages, their click-through rates jump four times higher than average, their analysis concluded.
With ActiveTrack, Thinking Media is raising the bar for Web site publishers seeking ad dollars. Industry executives appear to support the model.
"Until we are able to measure ad views at the computer screen, the measurement of Internet advertising is going to be less than complete," said Mike Donahue, exec-VP of Four A's. "The third-party ad-serving industry has to develop technology like Owen Davis'."
Several agencies, including Rare Medium and U.S. Interactive, both New York, last year licensed ActiveTrack from Thinking Media. But it has received relatively little industry attention until now. In July, OgilvyOne plans to test the technology with one of its biggest clients, the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Many industry executives acknowledge Thinking Media's technology as the wave of online advertising's future. It got a boost last week when it received $3 million in venture capital from Prospect Street Ventures, New York, and Travelers Insurance Group, New York. It expects to secure $2 million more in financing this week.
A STEP FURTHER
Ad-serving companies have succeeded in crafting technology that counts requests for cached pages, an important number for both advertisers and publishers tallying ad impressions. But Thinking Media's tracking software takes even cache-busting a step further.
"This is a promising and interesting approach to measurement that has some significant advantages a lot of companies are looking for," said Jim Spaeth, president of the ARF. "On the server side, you get a tremendous amount of precision, but you are pretty distanced from the actual user. This [user-side tracking] could be a revolutionary form of measurement."
But third-party ad-serving companies argue the technology has its flaws.
"Counting from the browser side requires some kind of mechanism that resides on the browser," said David Rosenblatt, VP-general manager of closed loop marketing solutions at ad network DoubleClick. "It's hard to get a physical thing out to millions and millions of browsers-plus, it would introduce the problem of a privacy risk. Viewing habits, instead of being limited to content views, would be applied to ad views."
DoubleClick also acts as a third-party ad server. Web publishers and advertisers can outsource its DART technology for serving and tracking ads both within and outside the DoubleClick Network.
MORE ACCURATE BUT SMALLER
Web publishers may not be eager to accept numbers that, while perhaps more accurate, could be smaller. That said, plans are under way to examine this technology.
"I don't know any reason in the world why Web sites wouldn't be interested in it, as long as their cached ads are counted, and I don't know why advertisers haven't been more demanding [of this technology]," said Kent Valandra, exec-VP, new media at Western Initiative Media, West Hollywood, Calif. "It's way overdue for us to shift the paradigm and make it more accurate.
"It needs to reflect what's seen on the user side. The only [technology] that's been presented to me that makes sense is Thinking Media's. [With this kind of technology], Web sites will not lose money and advertisers will better