Is the ‘impression’ a dying digital ad currency?

The ‘attention minutes’ currency is gaining ground as marketers question the true relevance of an impression.

Digital advertisers needed a currency and it just happens the impression was the perfect fit.

The Internet Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) Viewable Impressions guidelines state that 50% of the pixels in a banner must be visible for one second to qualify as an impression. And ad agencies are generally eager to inform clients on the volume of clicks their banner ads have received. However, the IAB also knows how skewed this logic can be having previously admitted that a third of all digital ads are fraudulent.

The waters for impressions get even muddier when you consider Google’s claims that more than 56% of impressions are not viewable. And according to recent research from Lumen, which used 300 consumers’ laptops to collect visual data of their browsing habits, only 35% of digital display ads received any views at all. Of those, only 9% of ads received more than a second’s worth of attention.

These sorts of figures have rightfully made many marketers nervous. To counter this publishers, including the Financial Times and The Economist, have created attention minutes packages. And earlier this week, The Guardian also tapped into this trend as it revealed it was piloting a time-based display campaign for its advertisers.

Under the model, The FT, an early pioneer, and The Economist both trade attention on a cost-per-hour basis so advertisers can buy a set number of active-view hours.

Active view is when an ad is in view and the user is doing something meaningful – such as scrolling, typing or clicking – that proves they are in front of a screen. Subsequently, an advertiser only pays for active view time and not on an impression basis.

This means impressions that deliver between five to 30 seconds of active view time will be counted towards the overall time bought by an advertiser. This gives marketers the peace of mind that their ad is actually being seen for a meaningful period of time rather than just being blinked at.

Stronger engagement

Since launching the model a year ago, Jon Slade, chief commercial officer at the FT, says it has launched 41 campaigns for 31 different advertisers raking up 14 years’ worth of attention. He says the campaigns have resulted in “far stronger brand recall and brand favorability than impressions could ever muster”.

According to Slade, there is a growing pessimism among marketers when it comes to impressions.

“The fact more and more brands are signing up for our attention minutes package is because they are realising all impressions are not equal,” he explains. “The problem with using impressions as the predominant currency for digital advertising is it rates every single impression exactly the same. The impression that reaches the bare minimum threshold of one second is given the same financial reward as one seen for 20 seconds or more.

He adds: “Around 18 months ago, we were alone in talking about the concept of attention minutes but things are changing.”

“I went to a conference in New York last month about time-based ad selling and 150 people were passionately taking notes, so it’s clear this concept is gaining momentum.”

Jon Slade, chief commercial officer, Financial Times

Earlier this year, in a report by The CMO Survey, only 3.4% of 300 top US marketers said that investments in digital had made a ‘very high’ contribution to profitability.

And with this climate of pessimism, Ashwin Sridhar, senior vice-president and global head of The Economist’s digital products revenue, would “bet money” on impressions “eventually being phased out” as the core metric of success for digital ads.

He says that brands that have signed up to The Economist’s attention minutes package have achieved a 50% better click-through rate.

“We believe serving a campaign based around viewability is counter productive and doesn’t give marketers what they really want, which is meaningful time with that audience,” he adds. “Facebook is even tracking attention minutes now and has brought in the analytics company Mode to build up this potential. That is telling.”

Making the case for impressions

However, not everybody is as convinced that impressions will fade away. Lars Glenne, head of media strategy at DigitasLBI, says they still have a place and that it is about giving clients more options.

He explains: “For us as an agency we don’t believe attention minutes will phase out or replace impressions, it is more a complementary feature.

“If as a brand your goal is for scale, then impressions are still very valid so long as there is transparency about how that target is met. The problem is agencies do not always report true results and say a campaign reached 100 million users when it was only 10 million. That gives impressions a bad name.”

Pinterest video ads
Pinterest recently enabled businesses to buy on a CPM (impressions) basis in the UK, in addition to the ability to buy based on engagements or clicks

Pinterest’s UK and Ireland country manager Adele Cooper appears to be in agreement with Glenne. The social media giant is planning to launch video ads on its platform as it looks to compete with rivals such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, with the format prioritising sales over views. But despite this, she understands why impressions are still practical for many marketers.

“If a brand is primarily focused on direct response metrics, there are a number of ways to track the actual impact of a campaign and this is usually a marketer’s preferred approach,” she explains.

“If a brand is primarily focused on driving brand awareness or changing the perception of the brand, the marketer may use an in-house or third-party research firm to track changing brand metrics over time.  As it can be both time-consuming and expensive to run this type of study, marketers are often willing to use impression and engagement metrics as a proxy for business results, based on their historic experience or measurement data from previous campaigns.  It’s just not practical for a large company to run a measurement study on every single marketing campaign.”

The future

But even if impressions remain practical, Martin Vinter, head of bought media at iProspect, says the metric is losing sense of its meaning.

“We are moving away from treating the “impression” as a metric to looking at not only the construct of it but the value of it in terms of engagement or attention.

“Outside of unique reach, the impression as a metric is dying a death in terms of meaningfulness.”

Martin Vinter, head of bought media, iProspect

Vinter adds: “This is especially true for the desktop display impression. Mobile and video inherently counter this as most of those impressions are video-based and ‘in-view’, suggesting at least a level of attention.”

Meanwhile, Slade at the Financial Times says the culture of marketers prioritising volume over value also has to change. He hopes the concept of attention minutes can help to facilitate this change.

He concludes: “When we as industry talk about tens of millions of clicks being nirvana and the goal, it worries me.

“If your brand strategy is about units and volume, you are in for a very difficult few years. If your proposition for the customer is one of value and not just volume, then you are in far stronger position, and cost-per-hour and attention minutes is much more about value than volume, and that’s what people are waking up to.”

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Comments
  • Chris J Arnold 31 Aug 2016 at 2:06 am

    The key issue here is that marketers want to measure the effectiveness of ads, which is fair enough, but will swallow anything that looks like a nice big number – likes, views, hits, Tweets…. because we live in what has been called the ‘Numeric Society’. Everything has to be measured with a number. Doesn’t actually matter what it really means as long as it’s big. While ‘effectiveness’ is an essential measure, and ultimately sales, few have challenged the value of these number until now. Within the last year we have gone from celebrating the numbers to a witch hunt as many marketers now feel conned by fake digital data. Some of us can now say “we told you so”.

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