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The successor to viewability is not a metric — it’s a methodology

hand holding a magnifying glass looks at one circle while many circles appear outside the magnifying glass.

Illustration by Robyn Phelps / Shutterstock / The Current

Stroll around any advertising conference, and you’re sure to overhear a conversation about viewability — it’s cheap, ubiquitous and the benefits are well known. Common questions include: Does viewability address the modern concerns of buyers? Do we need to replace viewability? If so, what will the hot, new “it” metric be?

But this is the wrong way to think about the problem. The successor to viewability is not a single metric — it’s a multifactor optimization methodology that uses several reinforcing metrics to validate the quality of ad inventory.

Viewability origins

With the benefit of hindsight, most would agree that viewability, or a metric that tracks ad impressions that can be seen by a user, was a good thing for our industry. It suppressed bad behaviors by reducing the benefit of repeatedly running hidden ads, and encouraged buyers to pay more attention to the properties that their campaigns ran on.

It took time, but the industry had adopted a new metric that set effective, shared boundaries around inventory quality and moved campaigns beyond simply using impressions and clicks as a proxy for campaign success. We moved on to other problems (never a shortage of those in ad tech!) and viewability — adding value, but not particularly progressive or exciting — receded into the background.

Which brings us to today. Bad actors, which is a term to describe disingenuous groups who look to disproportionately capture ad spend, have quietly hijacked “viewability” to create sinkholes that capture disproportionate ad spend.

Let’s demonstrate how this happens by comparing two different publisher environments, starting with our “bad actor.”

As you can see, the publisher has packed this property with ads, and critically, three to four of the ad units use something called “sticky positioning,” which freezes the ad units in their position in the viewport, regardless of user scrolling.

If you compare this to a more established publisher’s content, you can see that there are significantly fewer ad units and sticky positioning is used sparingly, if at all.

So what happens if you are running a programmatic ad campaign, optimizing toward a single factor, viewability? Well, between these two publishers, you are going to allocate a ton of your budget with the bad actor. Oops.

This is a good illustration of why single-metric optimization strategies are vulnerable to being exploited. It is not that the viewability metric no longer works — it’s functioning as intended — but that it’s only looking at one facet of what could be used to define the quality of an impression on a publisher’s site.

Teams and products need to move toward a multifactor methodology when designing an inventory-quality strategy. It’s analogous to what we see in data security. More and more, regular people are using multifactor authentication to secure their most sensitive data. Individually, a factor can be exploited, but together, the factors are more resistant to bad actors, as they have to breach multiple safeguards in order to access sensitive data.

If we go back to the previous web examples, think about how your campaign would spend if the optimization included:

1. Biases against environments that have high advertising to editorial content ratios (A2CR)

2. Biases against auto-refreshing ad units

3. Biases against intrusive ad formats, like sticky ad unit

4. Biases against low ad viewability

The result would be a lot more ad spend on Wired and other quality publishers (as detailed in the new Sellers and Publishers Report). A multifactor approach to inventory quality creates an interwoven threshold that bad actors will struggle to exploit, as they can’t just goal-seek to a single metric — essentially telling your campaign exactly what it wants to hear.

While it will take some work to adopt a multifactor approach to inventory quality, it will yield dividends. The first is downstream security: You’ll sleep soundly knowing that CMOs won’t be sending flaming emails demanding you to explain why their ads are running on low-quality made for advertising (MFA) sites. The second dividend is core campaign performance. Many of these modern signals available to you, like A2CR, will have a material, positive impact on campaign outcomes.

Viewability isn’t — and shouldn’t be — going anywhere. What needs to change is our mindset toward inventory optimization and encouraging buyers to move beyond the “one metric to optimize it all” mindset. It’s a weakness that bad actors exploit in our industry, and it’s a vulnerability gap that can be closed.


The views and opinions contained in this op-ed represent the views and opinions of the author(s) and do not represent the views or opinions of The Current, a division of The Trade Desk, nor of The Trade Desk. The appearance of the op-ed on The Current does not constitute an endorsement by The Current or The Trade Desk of the content.