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Matt Hill on paying attention to viewability

Here's a well-known philosophical thought experiment: if a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Can something exist if it isn't perceived?

I'd go with yeah probably, but then I'm no metaphysician. I hope my kids still exist even though I can't currently hear them screaming.

But trees falling unheard - and presumably unseen - brings me to a scorching hot topic: online ads playing unviewed.

A partial glimpse

The industry is abuzz with talk about the viewability of online video advertising - or at least it is if you are there to hear it, obviously.

This is a thorny issue. What counts? Well, the IAB's standard is that 50% of pixels must be in the viewable portion of an internet browser for two seconds to count as an impression. 

Having a partial glimpse as a standard is a fairly low benchmark and has, unsurprisingly, been questioned.

And that is before you factor in the issues with viewing rates - eye-tracking research by Lumen found that only 9% of online ads are looked at for more than a second - and bots etc. (If you want a forthright, bit sweary, but hard-to-argue with view of this, you could do a lot worse than read the Ad Contrarian's recent blog on the topic).

When a question about online ad viewability came up at a recent conference at which I was lanyarded, an online video rep defended it in an odd way. He attacked linear TV, saying that people don't always pay attention to TV advertising. He mentioned making cups of tea and multi-screening as serious issues for TV advertising viewability.

Viewability is not the same as attention

Firstly, it is important to say that multi-screening is an incredibly positive thing for TV advertising. What's not to like about something that helps viewers immediately respond online to what they're watching, is proven not to affect ad recall, and in fact keeps them in the room, in front of the TV during the ad breaks?

But, secondly, the rep was confusing the issue of ad viewability with the very separate issue of ad attention. This swerve is something I've noticed happening an increasing amount, so I'd like to address it. 

The hierarchy of ad exposure

Let's think about it as a hierarchy of ad exposure - and who doesn't love a hierarchy? (My kids, that's who): 

Delivery: is an ad actually served, broadcast, printed, pasted up etc..? Did it have the potential to be seen (by a human, but that's another matter).

Viewability: how much of the ad was physically available to be seen. Was there a bloody great tree in front of the poster site or another window running over the webpage with the ad playing in it. If it's A/V, for how long was it possible to be seen? An additional crucial measure here for video is audibility: was the ad played with the sound on?

Exposure: did the ad come within the sightlines of the audience. The first two criteria might have been met but if someone leaves the room while the ad is running then they have not been exposed. 

The poster might be perfectly viewable but if no-one walks past then no-one has been exposed. Exposure doesn't have to be focused or central. Few people stop and stare at posters but they only need to come within people's peripheral vision to do their job.

For TV, BARB covers this aspect well; the TV set is monitored to know what is viewable and in addition people must be in the room when the ad is running at normal speed. In fact BARB throws away an additional 10% of viewing where the TV is on, but no one is in the room watching. That's a pretty rigorous set of criteria for measuring exposure.

Attention
: did the ad capture the interest or visual focus of the audience? These are two very separate qualities that we bung together under the topic of 'attention'. Any ad that requires text to be read in order to work will be dependent on visual focus.

If an ad such as this has simply been exposed, but with no visual focus, you could argue that it can't have worked, whereas a visual or audio ad can work without needing that sort of level of attention. 

Ads that interest us, that draw us in and engage us emotionally are the Holy Grail and that's generally about creativity. We should have the humility to accept that no ad starts out getting that sort of attention but it can be earned.

Delivery, viewability and exposure are used to determine how advertising is charged for. They're the measurable aspects of advertising that fulfil the contract between the media owner and the advertiser, and the most rigorous of the three is exposure. 

Attention is a different, less tangible beast. It is a largely qualitative metric, dependent on a number of variables which are outside what's measurable by the media owner or JIC. As such, it can't form part of a currency.

Obviously attention is important. Passive or active, attention is something all advertisers want, and it will manifest itself through the effectiveness of advertising. Creativity is crucial to driving effectiveness as the IPA and Peter Field have proved many times.

But attention isn't the same as viewability or exposure. Attention is a result of viewability and exposure doing their job combined with creativity. If an ad can't be or isn't seen or heard - in a forest or not - paying attention doesn't even come into it.


This article first appeared in Mediatel


  • Matt Hill
    Matt Hill
    Research & Planning Director, Thinkbox
  • Posted under
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