What does viewability mean and what is a viewable ad impression?

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Mercedes online ads viewed more by fraudster robots than humans
A big issue in digital display advertising at the moment is “viewability” – does a human being actually see most digital advertisements?
In many cases the ad is shown ‘below the fold’ in a position on the page that the user does not scroll down to or see on the screen at any time – usually these ads are counted as having been shown and are paid for by the display advertiser. In the worst cases, the ad is shown on a website to bots and not by any users at all – something I wrote about in ‘All digital advertising is performance advertising‘ when it was revealed by The Financial Times that in a recent campaign Mercedes online ads were viewed more by fraudster robots than actual humans. ComScore recently reported that only 54% of ads were actually viewable – premium publishers have higher scores whereas networks and exchanges have even less impressive statistics.
The IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau) in the US recently confirmed its definition of a viewable ad impression: “a minimum of 50 percent of pixels in view for a minimum of 1 second” and this definition is likely to be, but has not yet been, adopted around the world. It is at least a benchmark but it’s not great news to advertisers paying on a CPM basis that their ad may only have been half seen by a user for a second to count as viewed – does that really mean the user saw it in the context of an entire page?
Some large agencies I’ve spoken to are starting to measure viewability on all CPM campaigns soon and start buying on this basis from early 2015.
21 November 2014 – updateAn article from MediaPost this week states that viewability is getting worse, not better: “Data from the third quarter of 2014 finds little more than a third (36.7%) of all display ads purchased on networks and ad exchanges were deemed “viewable” per the Media Rating Council (MRC) standard of 50% of the ad being in-view for at least one second. That’s down from the 45.3% rate posted in the second quarter, which was down from the 51.3% rate posted in the first quarter.”
It’s not hard to see why around 66% of all digital advertising is now based on performance metrics.
Read more about contextclick bait and ROI.