The new MRC Mobile Viewable Ad Impression Guidelines risk pushing the industry to forced viewability

Developing guidelines for mobile viewability is not an easy task. Mobile environments are more heterogeneous than its desktop counterparts, mobile viewability tracking is often inadequate, and there’s a wide range of market interests to be balanced. That being said, the statement that the MRC has made in its recently released mobile viewable ad impression measurement guidelines is worrying.

In their guidelines, the MRC proposes that smartphone ads should be treated the same as desktop ads. For mobile display ads, that means that at least 50% of the ad’s pixels need to be inscreen for 1 second or longer in order for it to qualify as viewable.

Widespace is one of Europe’s leading mobile brand advertising providers, with a total reach of 300 million unique users in more than 19 markets. As per our data and experience, we clearly see that consumers need less than one second to have the opportunity-to-see an ad in a mobile environment.

The opportunity-to-see an ad on mobile 

Widespace introduced its first mobile viewability offering in May 2015, and has since collected view time data from more than 5 billion ad impressions. The data shows that 20% of click events occur on impressions that have not yet reached the viewability criteria of 50% of pixels inscreen for one second. Even if some click events are involuntary, it can be inferred that in the majority of these cases the user had seen the ad before clicking on it.

We have similar findings on closing events, the event that is triggered when a user taps the ad’s close button.

The general process of closing an ad requires the user to:

i. Have an ad in-view

ii. Observe the ad

iii. Make a conscious decision to close the ad

iv. Tap the close button

According to our findings, users start closing ads already after 200 milliseconds. The peak is somewhere around 1.3 seconds, but as many as 28 % of the close events occur already before the ad has been inscreen 1 second. The close button on our ads takes up less than 1% of the ad creative, so extremely few of the closing events should be involuntary. The fact that users start closing ads already after 200 milliseconds and that the peak in closing events is at 1.3 seconds leads us to believe that substantially less than one second is required for an ad to have the opportunity-to-be-seen.

We have also seen that impressions which do not meet the proposed criteria still drive ad recall. We survey users with our Brand Impact Studies, a methodology verified by Millward Brown. Our studies indicate an ad recall of 38% for ad impressions that are 100% in-view for 0-400 milliseconds, as compared to 45% for ads that have been in-view for 400-1500 milliseconds. The false positive recall rate for the control group is 28%.

User behaviour in mobile environments

The user behaviour and viewability funnel is inherently different on mobile and desktop.

Mobile is a clutter free ad environment, and most publishers don’t show more than one ad in the screen at a time. For publishers working with branding formats, that ad often takes up around 70% of the screen. In a desktop environment, the user is often exposed to 3-4 ads at a time and a standard panorama ad takes up around 10% of the screen.

The ad’s relative size and share of view has an impact on how long it takes for a user to observe an ad, and how likely she or he is to recall having seen it. IPG Medialabs and Integral Ad Science made the same conclusion earlier this year in their report “Putting Science Behind the Standards”. They found that, in a desktop environment, ads that had 100% share of view had 10% higher ad recall rate than other ads.

We also know that the screen size affects what we see. Eye tracking studies have shown that desktop users spend 70% of their time viewing the left half of the screen and only 30% of their time watching the right half. This theory was also proved in the earlier mentioned study by IPG Medialabs and Integral Ad Science: by using eye tracking technology, they found that only 48% of consumers actually see ads that qualify as viewable in a desktop environment. Only 76% of consumers see ads that are above the current viewability standard on desktop. This means that there are a lot of ads that qualify as viewable in a desktop environment that are in fact never seen by users, and even less so recalled. The limited screen size of a smartphone does not really allow the user to focus on anything but what is shown in-view at that moment. It is therefore safe to say that an ad in a mobile environment does not need to be shown in-view as long as an ad in a desktop environment in order for it to have an opportunity-to-be-seen.

The need for mobile specific guidelines 

A viewable impression is an impression that has the opportunity-to-be-seen. Basically, that means that a certain percentage of the ad’s pixels should be shown in-view long enough for a user to have a chance to see it. After that point, it’s the advertiser’s job to create interest and get the user to keep the ad in-view.

A majority of mobile web publishers will lose more than half their inventory if they adopt the new guidelines, including a lot of ad impressions that are shown in-view but that do not qualify as viewable. The demand side will not be willing to cover the inventory loss with higher CPM’s, and a probable outcome will be that publishers start selling more ad formats that are forcing viewability, such as adhesive banners, non-closeable interstitials and pre-rolls. These kinds of ad formats are perceived as intrusive by users, and are one of the primary drivers of ad blocker installment.

The purpose of the viewability guidelines is to establish the baseline minimum requirements for an ad to have the opportunity-to-be-seen; it’s not about measuring engagement or even ad recall. The user behavior and viewability funnel is fundamentally different on mobile and desktop, and it’s worrisome that this is not acknowledged by the MRC and its partnering organisations. We encourage any guidelines that can help drive the transition to a more transparent and efficient marketplace, but we need to openly discuss the implications. Mobile is its own medium, and by equating it to desktop we risk pushing the industry into a bad circle of forced viewability and diminishing quality inventory.

Patrik Fagerlund, CEO and Founder of Widespace

Click here to see MRC Mobile Viewable Ad Impression Measurement Guidelines.