Marketers React to Mobile Viewability Criteria, as Challenges Loom

Media Rating Council develops guidelines

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Earlier this week, the Media Rating Council made its first statement about mobile viewability—a burgeoning concern for publishers and advertisers as more online traffic shifts to smartphones and tablets. The initial guidelines, though temporary, are noteworthy for marking the first time the media ratings watchdog has acknowledged mobile, but marketers aren't clear about how the new criteria will help measure their campaigns.

Through 2015, the MRC is developing a set of guidelines for agencies and publishers used to measure countable mobile impressions. "We believe technical characteristics of the mobile ad serving environment may require the development of new or enhanced methods for determining the viewability of mobile-delivered ads," the MRC said in its statement. "The ways in which users interact with content and ads in mobile environments may have different patterns than those observed in the desktop environment, possibly creating differences in where the moment of 'opportunity-to-see' occurs."

In the meantime, the MRC recommends marketers measure mobile viewability the same as desktop. That means 50 percent of display ad pixels need to load in one second on publishers' sites and apps. For video, 50 percent of pixels are required to load in two seconds.

Measuring mobile

While the MRC's recommendations are on an interim basis, Evolve Media's president Brian Fitzgerald said publishers' responsibility of loading 50 percent of a mobile ad—which readers typically skim over in less than a second—isn't logical. "If I have to wait for the full ad to load and then for it to be in view for one second, that's going to be problematic for me," Fitzgerald said, adding that he wished publishers were only accountable for 25 percent of an ad loading. "It sort of begs the question: Why in the world are we moving forward so fast and pushing an interim standard?"

But Ryan Pauley, executive director of revenue operations at Vox Media, said he's not as concerned about the initial standards. "In the short term, it's the right step to make it the same for clean measurement and tracking," he said. Instead, he thinks the standards will spur vendors and publishers to build new types of mobile ads. "I think what it will encourage is further exploration on our side of different ad experiences to take advantage of."

Time Inc. is already thinking about mobile formats that tackle viewability. "We have implemented 'adhesion units' that stick to the bottom of the page and scroll with the consumer as they navigate down through the content," said Time Inc.'s executive director of digital research Rory O'Flynn.

Loaded ads

One of the first steps in developing new guidelines was coining a new term: "loaded ad," meaning what happens when either the pixels or amount of time needed to serve an ad on a page do not line up. Per the MRC, these ads should not be considered a viewable impression.

"The way they phrased it acknowledges that there are a lot of ads that occur that way," said Lyle Schwartz, managing partner at GroupM. "It's showing the difference between what might be served to what the consumer sees, so they are acknowledging that there is a gap there. Initially, I don't think there was or wasn't a gap between delivered ads and viewable ads."

Differentiating mobile and desktop viewability is a murky topic, to be sure, but Carol Chung, svp of media technology at DigitasLBi, said one of the main differences affects ads served in mobile apps versus on mobile sites.

Being able to calculate the exact percentage of how much an ad is seen before someone scrolls past it should, in theory, help agencies make better media buys. "Right now with in-app we can basically see if an ad's in view—period," Chung explained. "What's interesting is that this MRC standard is pressing the percentage definition."

For example, marketers could segment tablet and smartphone ads based on which device users are clicking more promos. "Currently that's really hard," she said. "It's trackable, so we can get it after the fact. But, it's not something that you can target against."

At any rate, as media consumption continues to shift toward mobile, what standards for advertising to on-the-go folks become commonplace looms as a huge development ahead.

Stay tuned.

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