How Can Marketers Be Certain Their Mobile Ads Are Actually Getting Seen?

The viewability debate shifts to smartphones

Headshot of Lauren Johnson

Having addressed marketers' concerns about desktop viewability (ads that are actually seen by consumers) in 2014, the Media Rating Council is now in the hot seat to provide guidance on mobile advertising.

In May, the MRC made its first statement on mobile viewability, saying that smartphone-size ads need to be measured differently than desktop ads. Five months later, however, marketers are still waiting for an industry standard for chargeable impressions to buy ads against, even with the MRC's promise to address the issue by the end of the year.

"Mobile viewability is huge—people want it done already, so there is a lot of pressure on all sides to move this forward," said George Ivie, CEO and executive director of the MRC. "There's also pressure to do it right. We don't want to set parameters that aren't properly informed by the data and how people use mobile."

In the interim, the MRC is advising brands entering the holiday season to treat mobile viewability the same as desktop, meaning that advertisers only pay when 50 percent of a display ad loads for one second and two seconds for video promos.

That hasn't stopped marketers from experimenting with mobile viewability in the meantime, though.

"It's something you can't avoid thinking about, even if you would like to," said Sarah Baehr, svp, digital director at Carat. "Having the MRC come out with a statement is always important as an industry, but it doesn't mean that conversations aren't happening."

To see just how mobile and desktop viewability stack up, measurement firm Moat crunched data across its clients' sites, which include The New York Times, AOL and Vox using the MRC's interim guidelines. According to Moat, 44 percent of mobile ads served are deemed viewable compared with 52 percent of desktop promos, primarily because smartphone-wielding consumers often scroll faster than websites can load ads. Once someone is on a site, 76 percent of mobile readers choose to scroll down a website versus 63 percent of desktop users who do the same.

That spells bad news for publishers who don't load ads at a lightning-fast speed. Per Moat, the average mobile user starts scrolling on a website 13 seconds after content begins loading. Desktop readers, on the other hand, wait 24 seconds before clicking down a page, which gives ads more time to load.

"If the ad hasn't loaded by the time that you start to scroll, you scroll past the place where the ad eventually loads," explained Jonah Goodhart, CEO and co-founder of Moat. "As a result, the ad is not viewable [because] you scrolled past the slot before it had a chance to load."

And the advertiser is charged for the impression. When readers do see an ad, it stays in view on a mobile screen for an average of 17 seconds compared to nearly 25 seconds on a computer.

The discrepancies may seem small, but agencies say they're substantial enough to potentially blow mobile viewability into a bigger issue than desktop, particularly with the rise in ad blocking.

Just last week during an earnings call, Omnicom CEO John Wren told analysts that viewability is a top priority for the agency, saying that the "time has come to agree [to] industry standards and select third-party verification firms that clients are comfortable with and the providers are comfortable with."

"Our clients are asking pretty consistently on the matter, now that ad blocking has taken a center stage the past couple of months," said Sarah Bachman, vice president of mobile strategy at independent media agency Horizon Media.

Still, not all buyers are concerned about mobile viewability. Brian Nadres, director of programmatic media at The Media Kitchen, said that he's more focused on experimenting with different types of native and social formats—like targeted Instagram posts—instead of worrying about mobile measurement.

"We're still thinking of [what] a mobile ad should look like rather than talking about viewability," Nadres said. "I'm wondering if we're spending too much time talking about viewability and not enough time getting down to the nitty-gritty of, 'was that actually effective?'"

This story first appeared in the Oct. 26 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@laurenjohnson Lauren Johnson is a senior technology editor for Adweek, where she specializes in covering mobile, social platforms and emerging tech.