Time-based ad buying makes a lot of sense, but it still faces an uphill battle

Many of the woes digital media faces can be tracked back to one thing: how ads are counted. Generally, ads are based on clicks or views. For digital publishers, both present problems. Relying on clicks is a recipe for disaster in competing with Google and Facebook, and the view means churning out more pages, no matter how.

That’s why the current vogue in many digital media circles is time-based selling. The concept, championed by publishers like The Financial Times and The Economist, has a lot to recommend it: Defining ad success by  how long people spend with them in view would reward top-tier content and punish click-bait and lightweight social chum, but it would also give brands quality exposure to quality audiences.

That idea brought more than 100 people to the Time Inc. headquarters Wednesday, for an event called the Time and Attention Conference. It was the latest of several that have been held this year, including Attention.io and Time Based Buying event held at AppNexus.

According to numerous polls conducted throughout the event, most attendees are optimistic that time-based currency will become a bigger part of the ad ecosystem in the years to come. Yet even the stalwarts of time-based ad selling allow that the idealistic vision of time-based sales faces several challenges, not least the fact that changing the way ads are bought and sold doesn’t happen overnight.

“I’m bullish on the idea [of time-based buying and selling],” said Raef Godwin, the vice president of revenue of operations in digital at the PGA Tour. “But it could be five years away.”
Many see a viewability standard as prerequisite for time-based buying. The 3MS initiative set standards for display ad viewability on desktop and mobile, but that hasn’t stopped heavyweight media agencies from creating their own definitions for viewable inventory. Without a single standard, it’s hard to drum up interest in the more adventurous project of buying and selling ad units based on how long someone’s seen them.

“Different holding companies have different definitions of viewability,” said Mark Howard, CRO at Forbes Media.” We need to stabilize that currency first.”

In the abstract, buying ads based on how long they’re viewed makes sense for some advertisers, and publishers are more than happy to sell their inventory at a higher price.But how do you compare the value of an impression to the value of a second, or three seconds, or 10?

“We’re trying to draw this parity between CPM and the CPH model,” said Ashwin Sridhar, svp of digital products revenue at The Economist.

For all of the impression’s shortcomings as a currency, it’s the unit that brands use to model how much digital tonnage they need to meet their advertising goals. When it comes to time, that is very much a blank slate.

While every brand would love people to spend hours and hours with their messages, the reality is that no one really knows how much time a brand needs with its audience to make its point. “We’re nowhere near the metrics for how to figure out how much time people should be spending with your brand,” said Caitlin Grigg, the director of digital media and data management at Microsoft.

While the number of publishers and tech companies that offers time-based buying solutions is growing, a time-based buy is just one product on a crowded aisle. Getting publishers to insist that brands buy their inventory in this new, unproven way is risky. And no publisher has enough clout to drag the market in a specific direction. “There’s only two sides that can demand it, and that’s Google and Facebook,” said Bill Day, the CEO of Tremor Video.

For all those challenges, there was a palpable sense of optimism in the room Wednesday. “I would imagine next year we’ll have triple the number of people,” said Howard, Forbes’ CRO. “And the year after that, we’re going to need a bigger venue.”

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