That's the question an initiative called Making Measurement Make Sense -- or 3Ms -- is wrestling with. Backed by the Interactive Advertising Bureau, 4A's, the Association of National Advertisers, the Media Ratings Council, MediaLink and Bain Consulting, 3Ms wants a whole new definition of an ad, based on whether anyone actually saw it.
It's a bigger problem than you might expect. According to a study by ComScore of 18 campaigns from advertisers including Kellogg's, Allstate, Ford and eTrade, up to 31% of online ad impressions served were never viewed, even though they counted as impressions in the campaigns. That's because the current definition is based on whether ads technically loaded onto a web page -- not whether someone actually had the opportunity to see the ad.
"We want to put display-ad units on an equal footing with other media," said IAB Senior VP Research, Analytics and Measurement Sherrill Mane. "The adoption of viewable impressions will ... give the media community comfort and security for brand advertisers to move forward."
At first blush, it sounds like a boon for advertisers, but a challenge for publishers, who stand to lose a number of the ad impressions for which they previously charged advertisers.
But Ms. Mane argues viewability metrics will help publishers better understand the valuation of inventory -- "This is the first step towards properly segmenting inventory. All units are not created equal."
Typically, top-of -page placements command highest prices, but research shows that in many cases these are overlooked in favor of in-content or below-the-fold placements -- it all depends on the type of content and how people consume it. What's surprising is how little of these publishers know and use.
As an example, recipe sites actually have higher viewability rates of ads below-the-fold than top of page placements and we're now "able to unearth the gold below the fold," said Linda Abraham, CMO of ComScore.
Yaakov Kimelfeld, Ph.D., senior VP-digital research and analytics director at MediaVest, said his agency has sought out these placements on some sites as they typically were lower priced but had great impact for campaigns. "The publishers had premium inventory and they don't know about it," he said.
The ComScore data suggest the new standard will have greatest impact on networks and exchanges that trade in "long tail inventory" -- that on smaller sites -- which showed the lowest rates of viewability in the ComScore test . Sites that fell below the top 500 in terms of reach had average viewability rates of 61%; sites in the top 50 had 77%, according to the ComScore study. Many publishers and agency executives are firmly in support of the viewability initiative. "We have to learn to speak the same language with online and offline if we want to move packaged-goods business to interactive," said John Montgomery, Group M Interaction chief operating officer. "We've got to start with the same definition."
Added David Cohen, chief media officer of Universal McCann and Chair of the 4A's interactive-media council: "This is the most realistic view of internet ads that will move the business. ... It's a new currency that we can organize around."
But others, such as Michael Hayes, president of Initiative Digital Worldwide, see problems. "The way we serve, track and reconcile, plus the billing, is based on IAB standards set up years ago. We are going to have to completely change to adjust [to viewable]. The two main companies that control more than 80% of the ad-serving market do not measure this way," he says referring to Google's DoubleClick and Microsoft's Atlas ad-serving products.
He also noted that agencies don't use ComScore or Nielsen to pay invoices, "so why pick them for this initiative?" His fear: The industry is going to end up with two methodologies (standard definition and viewable) and "these do not mix well."
He also sees an initiative like this as not necessary in light of what an agency can do: "If you are doing your job well, you are optimizing the media. The ad placement not viewed will get eliminated due to the sheer nature of its performance."
Ms. Mane said that ad servers, such as DoubleClick and Atlas, are involved with the initiative through the MRC and the industry should expect developments in the near future. Executives at Google DoubleClick declined to comment.
Others involved include ComScore, whose Campaign Essentials product spits out a vGRP (or validated Gross Ratings Point) that has eliminated not only nonviewable ads, but also ads that do not fit the target audiences or geography, ads served on inappropriate content and fraudulent ads that served to nonhumans like spiders and bots. Nielsen, meanwhile, has built viewability into its Online Campaign Ratings tool, and has an online version of a GRP tool that they refer to as an eGRP or effective GRP.
Other companies that offer viewability measures include Say Media through its Clean Campaign product, Collective through its AMP ad-serving platform and RealVu, a company with a stated mission of having "viewable impressions replace CPMs as an industry standard." Analytics company Adometry announced in March that they could do attribution modeling based on viewed rather than served ads.