Publishers are underwhelmed by the payoff from hitting viewability standards

Publishers are bending to the will of advertisers to make their ads more viewable, but some publishers are finding the payoff isn’t as great as they anticipated.

Over the past year and a half, advertisers have continually pounded their fists, demanding that they’ll only buy ads that are guaranteed to be seen by a user. The push for viewability gave the impression that advertisers would spend branding campaign dollars with publishers that had highly viewable ads, said Erik Requidan, vp of programmatic strategy at Intermarkets, which helps publishers including Drudge Report and The Political Insider market their ad inventory to buyers.

Instead, the sites Requidan works with continue to be relegated to getting performance-based ads, he said. Those sites might see a few dollars increase in their CPMs if they boost their viewability, but big-brand dollars haven’t materialized.

“If something is 90 percent viewable, shouldn’t that unlock a whole lot more money or a bigger price point?” he asked.

When listicle publisher Ranker tweaked its site layout last year, page-load time went down 60 percent and average viewability rates doubled from 35 percent to 70 percent. Those factors helped Ranker increase its average CPMs by about 75 percent, but the prices of its least and most viewable ads don’t differ much.

Ranker’s ad viewability ranges from 62 to 82 percent. But there’s only a 13 percent difference in the CPMs for these ad units, said Ranker CEO Clark Benson. Given how much advertisers and their tech vendors emphasize that campaigns perform better when ads are 80 percent viewable, Benson expected Ranker’s most viewable ad units to command a higher price.

“So far, the promise of viewability quickly filtering out bad actors and improving yields for the good ones seems to be only a half-kept one,” he said.

It’s a similar story elsewhere. Stephanie Layser, vp of ad tech and operations at News Corp, said there’s no significant difference in price between the publisher’s least and most viewable ads. Remedy Health Media, the publisher of health sites like HealthCentral and, has seen little lift in its ad rates since increasing its viewability, said Aryeh Lebeau, evp of client operations there.

Some publishers said they’re satisfied with the pricing lift they’re getting for highly viewable ads, which is a function of their expectations of their advertisers.

Lebeau wasn’t bothered by the lack of lift in ad rates because advertisers never promised Remedy higher rates in exchange for higher viewability.

A programmatic specialist at a comScore 200 entertainment publisher, requesting anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to share financial details, said a 30 percentage-point lift in viewability at his company’s websites tends to increase CPMs by about 20 percent. This person emphasized that it’s difficult to isolate viewability’s impact on ad rates, so these figures are rough estimates. The source still felt his company was being compensated fairly for its highly viewable ad placements.

Another source, Danny Khatib, CEO of 100 percent programmatic publisher Granite Media, said high viewability rates can boost Granite’s CPMs by a few dollars, which he saw as significant.

“We never expected new branding budgets to come online solely because of viewability improvements,” he said. “That seems like wishful thinking.”

In an Integral Ad Science survey of more than 1,000 advertisers, 68 percent of respondents said they transact on viewability and another 25 percent said they wanted to do so. Although buyers are regularly transacting on viewable metrics, viewability is less likely to influence ad rates if it isn’t a primary KPI.

The reason rates haven’t risen right along with viewability has to do with how programmatic buying works. David Lee, programmatic lead at media-buying agency The Richards Group, said that even in a private marketplace setup, most buyers don’t place bids on individual publishers but place bids across hundreds, if not thousands, of sites at a time.

So if viewability is being used as a secondary KPI, then buyers’ bids will be restricted to the publishers that meet a certain viewability threshold. But since buyers aren’t bidding on individual publishers, they’re not intentionally setting out to pay specific publishers more based on their viewability gains. And since viewability rates are rising across the industry, publisher improvements in viewability are less likely to increase publishers’ CPMs than they were a year ago.

Another issue with rising viewability is that in an effort to appease advertisers, many publishers are doing whatever they can to make sure their ads are viewed just long enough to be counted as viewable. Most viewable ads are in view for just one second, according to IAS data. That amount of time happens to be the standard the Media Rating Council uses to define viewability.

As publishers increased their volume of viewable ads by refreshing pages, sticking ads in photo galleries and using interstitials, users got turned off and buyers caught on. IAS found that the average time that a desktop display impression was in view declined from 9.8 seconds in May 2016 to 7.7 seconds in May 2017.

“We’ve seen some publishers game the system in using ad placements that provide a less than optimal consumer experience but have higher rates of viewability,” said Stephani Estes, svp of media strategy at ad agency Cramer-Krasselt. “In those instances, we’re not willing to pay more for higher viewability.”

It’s understandable that publishers get miffed by low returns on highly viewable ads. But in programmatic environments, the highest CPMs come from programmatic direct deals, not the open exchange. And to entice ad buyers to set these deals up, publishers need to have viewability rates above 65 percent, according to three publisher sources.

Viewability isn’t necessarily a way to lift rates, said Mort Greenberg, svp of ad sales at Sightline Media Group, which owns government-focused sites like Federal Times and Military Times. “However,” he added, “high viewability will keep you on a plan.”

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