Reviewing Viewability: 5 Questions With Adaptly President Sean O’Neal

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Viewability, the metric that determines how much of an ad is visible to users and for how many seconds, is a hot topic for digital marketers. A static ad is typically considered viewable if 50% of the ad appears in an open browser for at least one continuous second. Now that more brands are adding video to their marketing mix, the discussion of viewability gets more complex. Inconsistency between industry definitions, the media platforms’ own video view metrics, and documented user behavior all compete to produce different standards of viewability.

Social marketing company Adaptly helps some of the world’s biggest brands, including Ford, KFC and Banana Republic, run ads on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and Pinterest. As such they deal with viewability discussions every day, which is why we sat down with Adaptly president Sean O’Neal to discuss the conflicting definitions and how they affect both marketers and the advertising industry as a whole.

Why is viewability important to brands?

One of the most important metrics for marketers to track is also one of the most difficult: Who’s watching these ads and are they impacting our bottom line? Viewability, in theory, is the difference between an ad that someone is exposed to in a meaningful way and an advertisement that is served partially or too quickly to have an impact. Unfortunately, the industry definitions were shaped many years ago for display ads on desktop websites and not for today’s social and mobile experiences.

What are those definitions?

The Media Rating Council (MRC) defines a viewable video impression as two continuous seconds, 50% in view. However, we know from Nielsen research that 38% of brand recall and 25% of purchase intent is driven by video impressions shorter than two seconds, meaning the MRC rating is excluding more than a third of the revenue-driving views. This is crazy. And the media platforms themselves also have varying definitions of a “video view,” which results in even more questions.

Why are viewability metrics so varied?

Advertisers want to be able to measure everything they do, to ensure budgets are always spent on the most effective channels. In the case of viewability metrics, that’s resulted in a lot of inconsistencies across the industry, as third-party measurement vendors aim to establish whether impressions meet a viewable criteria on social platforms.

The discrepancies draw into question the accuracy of results, and many marketers are asking whether viewability is even the right metric to use in the first place. Establishing data integrity and consistency is key, otherwise these metrics might not be a trusted way to inform planning and buying decisions.

Why is it not an accurate metric on social?

It helps if you think about two different video watching experiences. First, picture yourself reading an article on a desktop computer, with a video playing on mute at the bottom of the site’s right-hand sidebar. That video ad might be 50% in view for two seconds or longer, but are you really engaged in its content?

Now think about the experience of scrolling through your Facebook feed on mobile or the app, as you come across a vertical video that captures your attention. You pause for a moment, focused only on that video, long enough to see a product or absorb a brand name. Then you scroll on to the next piece of content. You may not have spent a full two seconds with that video, but you were infinitely more connected to the advertiser than you were with the technically “viewable” experience.

How can viewability be defined to make sense for mobile?

Nielsen found that users spend 1.7 seconds with any given piece of content on Facebook mobile, compared to 2.5 seconds on desktop. If a user is only spending 1.7 seconds with the content they seek out, we can hardly expect them to spend more time with an advertisement. The problem starts when you think about where viewability came from. It was a traditional display metric, and now we’re trying to force it into the social advertising space. Instead we should be asking measurement partners to look at user experience and redefine their metrics based on actual user behavior in the social and mobile space.

The current definition of viewable video has been proven to ignore a large portion of brand awareness, which can prevent advertisers from effectively achieving their business goals on social. At the end of the day, viewability is a proxy metric. We encourage our clients to measure and optimize to real business outcomes like brand lift and sales lift, which are more consistent and reliable metrics than the current viewability data. And of course, they’re also the metrics that ultimately matter.

The original Q&A can be found on Brandchannel.