Beware the unintended consequences of viewability | M&M Global

Beware the unintended consequences of viewability

Viewability could be the currency that helps to draw the poison from user experiences and create a healthier online ad industry, writes BBC Advertising’s Tom Bowman.

Tom Bowman

There’s a story that, during the period of British rule in India, the colonial government worried about the number of venomous cobras endangering lives in Delhi – so they put a price on the snakes’ heads, and introduced a bounty for every dead cobra.

This started to backfire when local entrepreneurs started breeding cobras so that they could claim more money. It backfired even more spectacularly when the government realised it was being played in this way, cancelled the bounty, and encouraged the snake breeders to release live cobras into the streets. The net result was an increase in the cobra population.

Those colonial administrators had learned the hard way that you can design a new system of currency or reward with a particular goal in mind – but you can’t control how people will use that currency. That can produce dangerous, unintended consequences – and it’s exactly the kind of risk the ad industry needs to be aware of as we move the viewability debate forward this year.

Currency without context can be dangerous to health

Thus far, discussions of viewability have tended to focus on the technicalities: is an ad viewable if half of it sneaks onto the screen for two seconds? Is a single second enough to count as an impression? How much of a video ad needs to play before we can consider it viewed? Does it matter if the sound is on or not? These are all important elements in establishing a common currency for viewability – but they won’t guarantee how publishers and advertisers will react to that currency in their dealings with one another.

Depending on those reactions, viewability could be very good for the health of online advertising – or it could be disastrous.

“The dangerous aspect of the viewability debate is the complete lack of any sense of user experience”

To my mind, the dangerous aspect of the viewability debate is the complete lack of any sense of user experience. All too often the discussions feel like a legal tug of war between publishers and advertisers, with the audiences we are all trying to reach caught in the middle.

The threat of ad blocking has brought about a great deal of soul searching in the online ad industry (something I blogged about a month or so ago). But when we start discussing viewability, we all too easily switch back to the point of view that it’s a good thing to crowbar as large a visual as possible into a user’s field of vision, force them to watch the right proportion of video, or bombard their ears with an automatically playing soundtrack.

The fact that we can assess viewability accurately, and use it as a meaningful basis for negotiation is a huge potential advantage for the online advertising industry. However, if we lazily assume that viewable advertising is, by definition, good advertising, we will establish all sorts of perverse incentives that could dangerously undermine user experience.

The cobra scenario for viewability

There are two ways that things could play out once we adopt viewability as a key currency in online advertising.

Publishers could continue to sell the same number of ads on pages, but push those ads into positions where they can’t be missed, will always be seen in full and are inherently more interruptive. Such ads will need to be served at the same time as the page content itself, so in addition to being more interruptive, they’re also likely to add to page load times, one of the primary motivations for ad blocking. This is the cobra scenario for viewability. By establishing a new currency with no sense of the context for how it will be used, it could see us poisoning the user experience and doing more damage than good.

Finding the courage to value viewability

Overrunning users with interruptive ads isn’t an inevitable consequence of adopting viewability as a currency – and it’s not the approach that we’re taking at BBC Advertising. However, the alternative requires courage on the part of publishers – and a genuine appreciation of viewability’s value on the part of advertisers and media agencies.

The Dutch football magazine publisher Voetball International showed what’s possible when it cut over a third of its site impressions, capped the maximum number of ads to three per page, and eventually found revenues increasing as advertisers were prepared to bid more for the more viewable ad slots. However, it had to go through some “painful” times in terms of the immediate impact on revenues first. Are others prepared to take the same risks?

Voetball’s example holds out hope for an anti-cobra scenario. A future for online advertising in which the key players all put their money where their mouth is as far as viewability is concerned.

“Viewability could be the currency that helps to draw the poison from user experiences”

Publishers recognise that they need to value each impression, so as not to delay page load times and irritate audiences. Advertisers recognise the value that guaranteed viewability represents (compared to the rough approximations of Gross Ratings Points, for example), and pay more for the ad slots that can provide them.

The upshot is that high-quality publishers are rewarded for serving fewer, fully viewable ads. Users get fewer, higher quality and more relevant ads because, when impressions are valued more highly, there’s a greater incentive to make every single one of them count.

Viewability could be the currency that helps to draw the poison from user experiences and create a healthier online ad industry for all concerned. But let’s not assume this will happen automatically. Having a currency isn’t enough in itself; you also have to value what that currency represents.

Tom Bowman

Tom Bowman is a consultant. Reach him at

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