ESPN has long avoided using ad networks, exchanges, or anybody else but its own sales staff to sell its digital inventory, which it views as premium.
Now, to further draw a distinction between ESPN.com and the rest of the Web’s long scary tail, the company wants to prove to buyers that its ad inventory is worth a whole lot more—namely because human beings can actually see it.
On that note, ESPN has partnered with Horizon Media and the startup firm RealVu, which claims to be able to gauge how many ads in a particular campaign are actually viewable—those ads actually appear on a user's screen long enough so they can be seen, rather than say, below the fold of a Web page. As part of the new pact, several test campaigns for Horizon clients will roll out this this month employing RealVu's technology, theoretically ensuring that only viewable impressions will be delivered.
ESPN’s move to sell only legit ad impressions comes amidst an ongoing industry push to move away from recording Web ad impressions which are simply requested from a server because a user has visited a particular Web page, toward tracking ads which are ‘rendered’—meaning they actually appear on a computer screen. In the past few years, the IAB, the Four A’s, and the ANA have joined forces to urge the industry to adopt viewable impressions as a standard currency under the umbrella initiative Making Measurement Make Sense.
"There is real concern that ad dollars are getting expressed across media that isn’t reaching the desired consumer, which means that dollars are being wasted and opportunities for success are limited," said Donnie Williams, chief digital officer at Horizon. "A move toward viewability gives a broad spectrum of marketers the best shot at efficacy."
But until now, such efforts have been mostly talk. While employing ad verification technology has become standard for many advertisers buying inventory via ad networks and exchanges, few if any publishers have started selling guaranteed viewable impressions to brands.
“We all know the tricks that go on in this business,” said Lisa Valentino, vp, digital ad sales at ESPN. “We want to make it clear that not every impression is created equal. We need to level set this industry and we think this might become the new currency.”
But wait, why would big publishers like ESPN need to employ a third party like RealVu to track impressions on its own site? Don’t they know how many ads ESPN.com delivers and whether they’re viewable or not?
Actually, no, said Valentino. In fact, ESPN.com purposefully runs some ads below the fold where users can’t initially see them, since some of its content (like say articles on Grantland) are long, and require a lot of user scrolling. Brands want to be able to target these engaged users deep within such long stories, she said.
But if a user never makes it to the bottom of such an article, they’ll never see such ads. Thus, non-viewable impressions do happen. Based on internal testing, Valentino said that ESPN believes 70 to 80 percent of its ads are viewable. "We aren’t surprised to find that," said Williams.
“We think we’re at the high end of the spectrum,” added Valentino. However, the goal is to be perfect, eventually. That’s why the Horizon/RealVu test will be so revealing, since many top publishers are likely in the same boat as ESPN.
One publisher that isn’t is MSNBC, which redesigned its website in 2010 to completely eliminate the possibility of below-the-fold impressions. ESPN is considering such a move down the road.
“We want to make people think about the question, ‘what are you actually paying for online?’” said Valentino.