Category Archives: IAB

Solutions to the Privacy Debate: Lemons, Carrots and Potatoes

After reading the How to Prevent the ‘Do Not Track’ Arms Race  by Peter Swire, the inanity of it all becomes more apparent.The premise of this Wired piece is that users should have a choice…they do. They can visit a site and are implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) agreeing to receive free content and services in exchange for being presented with targeted ads.

Canny Web browsers are in a mad dash to curry favor with the genteel “Information should be free” crowd visible in the user comments. It seems that this end-run was done to pre-empt negotiations through W3C, most likely in an attempt to gain market share. However, it is surprising that for an attorney that Swire missed the opportunity to articulate the above quid pro quo argument missing in the discussion. Then again, so did the IAB. See Digital Media Lesson in Shooting One’s Foot (Part I).

The Dead Weight Web Audience (DWWW) consists of variety of ad/tracking dodgers. The size of this audience and their habits can be measured by most major site analytics tools and ad servers out-of-the-box or with some customization. Common methods include:

  1. Browser DNT
  2. Cookie blockers
  3. Ad blockers
  4. JS rejectors
  5. NAI opt-outs
  6. Likely cookie-deleters
  7. Others…

While the politicians posture and the debate rages on, sometimes it is necessary to turn these lemons into lemonade. The good news is that, solid ad analytics (or adverlytics) can inform the decision-making process about which kinds are most prevalent in your target Web audience.

It all starts with digital marketers and their agencies paying attention to the details of ad delivery. The growing interest in ad viewability is encouraging. For those that really want to reach a tech-savvy entitled audience that wants nothing to do with their ads  they will need to first measure it, in order to monetize it.

  • Carrot. Demographics on this audience may skew higher education and higher income; this  audience spends a lot of time online and believes in getting something for nothing and not afraid to post about it. Measuring the performance of this specific audience for your ad campaigns however, may require a concerted effort by digital media planners and analytics professionals – but that is their job.
  • Stick: Time to get up off the couch and start asking questions of your media suppliers, agencies and analytics team. Advertisers wasting impressions on an audience that doesn’t want any ads and is actively blocking your efforts to show them an ad is kind of masochistic. Ignorance is no longer an excuse as the money being wasted on targeting into the unappreciated abyss, could instead be heavied-up with more receptive audiences. Again, analytics can help refine targeting.

If existing agency analytics can’t measure the Dead Weight Web Audience, then consider adding an independent analytics consultant.

For site publishers that really want to attract the free-riding tech-savvy audience that also wants nothing to do with supporting their business model, the same advice applies: measure it and monetize it.

  • Carrot: Allow them to consume content for free, but find a way to sell advertising against this special audience. Free-riders can become its own targetable segment by definition – no off-site tracking or ad network is even needed. Anyone with DNT header activated, rejecting 3rd party cookies, blocking JS, etc…Most larger pubs already have an audience research/analytics and ad ops teams that can help do this and if not, additional consultants can be engaged.
  • Stick: Just say no to the content free-riders. While this has been really difficult for sites that have historically been in search of bulk ad impression delivery, the writing is on the wall considering the drive for ad viewability. When these literally dodgy people visit a site, send them a pop-up that advises them to pay for the session, subscribe, register or add site to the targeting white list. If the users choose not to, show them an empty page, very stripped down content or allow an annoying freebie cap. BTW, the pop-up can carry an ad, too.

Ad Networks
The real question is what to do with the DWWW that expects free content to be there when they arrive at a network Web site. These users can be sized up and once this is done, it is a question of monetization:

  • Carrot. Though anecdotal research suggests a small percentage of users are actually opting-out and that the size of the audience is relatively small, it does represent a valuable tech-savvy segment. Simply enable ad targeting of the DNT, NAI Opt-outs and the 3rd party cookie blocking crowd. Many ad networks have a means to even exclude likely cookie-deleters from their targeting. Folks, that sounds like a new segment to sell.
  • Stick. Develop or implement ad/pay wall technology. This will force the quid pro quo. For users that want to read their favorite bloggers, they will need to pay up with cash or a small slice of their attention. Smaller long-tail publisher partners will need help pulling this off but ad networks could easily deploy this technology.

Whether using the carrot, the stick or both, the solution is that advertisers and publishers need to take action on their own to stop getting ripped-off. Don’t carry this sack of entitled potatoes on your back. Now is the time to measure and monetize this otherwise mass of Dead Weight Web Audience.

Leveraging an incremental approach that leverages solid adverlytics, these strategies can boost the bottom-line and shape the digital media industry for the future. In doing so, many of these regulatory problems will solve themselves.

Learn to Say No to Free-riders.


    Digital Media Lesson II – Saying No to Free-riders

    In the last post, Shooting One’s Foot, the perfect storm of looming regulation, technology change and  growing acceptance of tech-savvy freeloading in the US was considered. We also saw how kowtowing to mindless traffic growth has all too often warped common sense business management.

    The focus of this post is on what leading digital media companies can do about it before it’s too late. Considering that browser cookies today are used for most measurement and targeting technologies, any drastic changes from the government could mean an effective collapse of today’s digital ad ecosystem as we now know it. For digital marketers, the cookiepocalypse would be the end of cookie-based ad targeting and site measurement as we know it today.

    Regulatory Threat Looms Large

    With 2012 elections rapidly approaching, new regulatory threats are appearing almost daily. It seems that
    US Web site users are essentially preparing to make a Coasean entitlement bargain similar to what Professor Steven A. Hetcher described in Norm Proselytizers Create a Privacy Entitlement in Cyberspace. Published by UC-Berkeley in 2001, it is a seminal but prescient study that provides remarkable clarity on digital media’s current predicament.

    In short, years of social entrepreneurs moralizing data collection have made self-regulation attempts by Chief Privacy Officers (although always good for PR) and industry trade groups (IAB, OPA, NAI, WAA) vulnerable against a paternalist federal administration, power-seeking bureaucrats and high-minded lawmakers in need of a quick win. Industry group strategies break down as follows:

    1.   Education. Teach consumers about the benefits of more relevant advertising while explaining just how cookie-based ad targeting works; ultimately to empower consumers with tangible options to manage their online data trail.

    Comment: Most people just don’t care all that much about it.

    2.   Choice. Require advertisers (interestingly, not site publishers though) insert the cute ad icon via an overlay within their ad units. Clicking on it brings users to a Web page that then allows them to opt-out from any or all of dozens of participating ad networks. Another albeit special, opt-out cookie is being placed in the user’s browser; it instructs the associated network/ad server to not target advertising to that particular browser.

          Comment: Aside from being a complex technical concept, the critical assumption is that consumers won’t later deliberately or inadvertently delete the NAI opt-out cookie itself thus defeating the purpose. Also this does not effect users with multiple computing devices. Also, cluttering advertisers’ very limited on-screen real estate while publishers have no skin in the game is very telling.

    3.   Politicking. Unfortunately but realistically, playing obeisant to politicians and bureaucrats probably has the best chance of action. For many industries, the ROI on lobbying is better than R&D.

          Comment: Hiring a squad of well-connected Washington lawyers to wine and dine politicians is not cheap. Worse, lobbying will have the usual perverse and unintended consequences due to the requisite back-room horse-trading/crony capitalism side-effects. Any deals will be near impossible to later undo as the government tends to have a heavy hand that ignores the signals from an ever-changing economy. As Hizzoner Richard J. Daley, was known to say, “to the victors, go the spoils.”

    Altogether, the above strategies just might not be enough for privacy activists or digital advertisers. It’s too little, too late. Arguably, the biggest digital media industry fail is that the digital media industry trade groups have failed to properly frame the privacy battle. They have been mostly reactive and not proactive about this; nor have they put the honus on their digital media membership to change the way they do business in any meaningful way.

    Clearly, the prevailing ostrich technique has not worked out for digital media although the usual suspects are doing well. While fear may have boosted trade group membership, it has not helped advertisers at all. Quite the contrary, it seems like Web site publishers are ducking yet again, clearly passing the buck to ad networks and advertisers, e.g. ad icon. Yet, targeted ads are delivered to their users by their ad servers because of the tags on their sites generating them ad revenue. Let’s not forget: people visits Web sites not ad networks

    Although the time for digital media to take responsibility is long overdue, most digital media companies still appear to be hoping that somebody else fixes this mess for them. Pinning hopes on premium iPad content and/or labyrinthine pay walls are indirect solutions with limited potential. Unless something drastic changes, digital media are going to continue to be held-up by loud activists, populist politicians, opportunistic trial lawyers and government bureaucrats. 

    Meanwhile, digital marketers and their agencies expect digital media partners to aggregate and deliver audiences as billed. It is painfully clear to advertisers that they are left to fend for themselves – caveat emptor applies.

    Just Say No

    Ironically, it is the digital media themselves that are actually in the best position to fix this issue for once and for all. Professor Hetcher explained this as the “filling the privacy norm gap” – a job that apparently nobody wants except the government. To heal this self-inflicted wound, digital media must first learn to just say no to traffic at all costs and the rampant user free-riding that it requires.

    Such a strategy requires an analytical approach to audience measurement and ongoing inventory yield management. The fact is that users that block 3rd party ad server/targeting cookies or routinely delete their cookies effectively rob digital media companies. Content and services provided to the consumer by them are done so with the implicit expectation of a particular financial benefit (advertising revenue) to the digital media company.

    A Simple Plan
    While fair-minded consumers might not like being tracked, most will acknowledge that they personally and directly benefit from the vast free digital media that is subsidized by ad targeting. At the same time, digital media companies know full well that most users didn’t read their respective terms of service agreements that legally allow them to track for advertising purposes.

    As such, there are some simple steps that digital media can take in a matter of days or weeks to take active control of their businesses and tenuous audience relationships, i.e. fill the Hetcherian privacy norm gap. It is based on the simple premise of re-establishing the intrinsic quid-pro-quo about user data-sharing in exchange for free media. Some though-starters:

    1. Block free-riders. Yes, that’s right. This means severely limiting or altogether blocking the ad targeting cookie rejectors, likely cookie-deleters and those using ad-blockers. While this may anger the fringe activists and total traffic may even suffer, the real question digital media need to ask themselves is so what?
    2. Require registration or paid access. Surprisingly, this is still an anomaly today. Instead of hoping people read the TOS, greet users pleasantly and offer them a clear choice, to either:
      1. Share anonymous information about their interests and/or behavior with advertisers and get free unfettered access; provide a plain English explanation of what is tracked and how (use a colorful diagram) with clear acceptance of the Terms of Service. Thank them for their continued support and find ways to make it worth their while
      2. OR, ask for them to pay a nominal subscription instead and receive no/un-targeted ads
    3. Monitor the results and adjust
    Overall, this strategy has several major benefits to both digital media companies and consumers, including:

    • Digital Media Benefits
      • Yield management. In the emerging audience-driven media buying model, free-riders are worth less revenue than users that are known or at least better defined. While free-riders consume digital media content as artificially “new” users (from the ad server standpoint) either through 3rd party cookie blockers or regular cookie deletion they are enjoying the same resources. At the same time, their value is much less and possibly negative. In the aggregate, this obscured but often effectively undifferentiated audience represents zero or very low CPM ad inventory. Common sense yield management suggests optimizing away this audience and perhaps creating some scarcity in the process.
      • Subscription revenue for those that prefer no advertising/targeting and opt-out of ad targeting or advertising altogether. According to the McKinsey study, digital media can potentially generate incremental revenue from subscriptions. Again, removing this inventory has the effect of making total ad impressions more scarce likely raising average CPM yield. 
      • Competitive advantage. With so few digital media doing this now, early-movers may have the potential to make this into a competitive advantage with advertisers.
    • Consumer Benefits
      • Sustainable transparency. With the implicit value exchange made more explicit and easier to understand than ever, most users probably wouldn’t like all the tracking involved but most probably won’t really care enough to pay for the content either. Consumers better understanding that supporting free-riders is financially unsustainable might also gain digital media some much-needed respect. Without the strong arm of the government, a rising tide could lift all ships.
      • Better privacy. With more buy-in from users, most privacy policies will probably be improved along the way; consumers will take more responsibility for what they are actively agreeing to share with a digital media business. Again, this could become a competitive advantage.
      • More relevant advertising. That is the ultimate purpose of targeted advertising which,  provides consumers with a better site experience. Think how Amazon’s recommendations can be trained or how some sites already let the user select ad preferences.
    Taking A Stand
    The good news is that some of the above are already being done – in places. Pulling it all together will require getting multiple stakeholders aligned and executing: legal, ad sales, engineering, marketing, technology, finance and certainly ad ops. The stakes are high and there is no guarantee of success. However, the days of traffic at all cost are coming to an end. All traffic is not created equal.

    Savvy marketers are watching closely and aren’t waiting around while Rome burns. Data-driven media buying trends and improvements in measurement technologies are arming astute digital marketers and media companies with more options than ever.

    Yet, until they muster the intestinal fortitude to just say no to free-riders, the vocal and technical activist minority will continue frame the debate and eventually prod the government into regulation and with it the end to digital advertising as we know it today.

    Digital Media Lesson in Shooting One’s Foot (Part I)

    Ah tax season…with the greedy hand reaching for more tax money around the country (especially in Illinois), digital media today is arguably one of the few areas of Internet commerce that is unmolested by government regulation. It is amazing that so many consumers have benefited from the abundance of free information and innovative services provided by private industry. Management consulting firm, McKinsey recently estimated that consumers enjoy about $145MM  per year worth of free content across the US and Europe alone.

    Like most major media today – this free content is subsidized by advertising. Going forward, McKinsey expects this to nearly double in just 4 years due to broadband adoption. An interesting implication of McKinsey’s study for digital media companies in particular, is that it suggests that consumers may be willing to tolerate both advertising and more pay services.

    Good news! For digital media companies they have a great opportunity if they can find the right balance for them and their audience – but are they up for it? With the hoopla about privacy, threats of “Do Not Track” regulation and developments in browser cookie blocking, it has become painfully apparent that individual digital media companies may not only have shot themselves in the foot but need to take action.

    Well, How Did We Get Here?
    It wasn’t always this way, during the 90s Internet boom, times were great for digital media – they were the darlings of Wall Street. Hockey stick ad revenues came with leveraging offline brands. Astronomical valuations thanks to investor’s fervor made it all seem so easy. Attempt to pay wall digital media continued to fail. Why charge for access when the advertising model realized growth from more users and from increased interest from advertisers?

    Then, the 2001 crash came and money got tight. Scarce capital and advertising sales forced a more prudent, often direct-response approach to digital advertising. Paid search with its manufactured precision boomed while display media floundered. At the same time, little-noticed improvements in display ad targeting technologies continued to get more powerful…and more complex. Ad networks blossomed to help make markets, bundle sites, audiences and do much of the heavy-lifting of ad targeting.

    Meanwhile, the recovering ad business models demanded more traffic: keep hitting the milestones, sales quotas and Internet rankings essentially at all costs. At the same time these promising new targeting technologies were being implemented, digital media legal teams dutifully but quietly continued to revise their Terms of Service agreements to reflect the changing methods. The trouble is that almost nobody read them (except class action lawyer Web bots). More importantly, risking the potential competitive hit in traffic would be a non-starter. The herd mentality that all traffic is sacrosanct created an atmosphere where burying the TOS became the norm.

    Fast forward to today and think Terrence Kawakja’s Display Ecosystem, with it’s dynamic players and shifting definitions. It is safe to say that the advances in behavioral, dynamic creative, site retargeting, data-sharing and use of purchased data represent a major part of the industry today. Many of these systems rely entirely, if not in part on their ability to target cookies and identify specific machines. Sure, there are differences between 1st and 3rd party cookies but this is a nuance likely to be lost in the heavy-hand of government regulators. Deleting all your cookies is not practical and can be annoyingly inconvenient for users. One promising alternative, machine fingerprinting methodology raises other privacy issues.

    Consumers: Something for Nothing?
    Not much is free in life – except it seemed online media it seemed. All-you-can-eat digital media business models made it easy for users to consume content with abandon – seemingly with no strings attached. And by effectively putting the honus on the average user to locate, read and understand the TOS, digital media companies routinely obscured the intrinsic trade-off. This was no accident, but turned out to be colossally short-sighted. Reading the fine print was certainly not encouraged.


    At the same time, users probably didn’t care because sites encouraged instant gratification offered by delivering consuming professionally produced branded content and innovative online services for free. With bragging rights added at stake, users became active participants in being there first.

    Unfortunately, the proliferation of the above strategy by created a wider phenomenon:

    •  It just about completely obscured the implicit (if not explicit) value exchange across many sites; this resulted in digital media individually and in the aggregate devaluing their own content
    • By not being more transparent about the tracking techniques that are used to subsidize user’s consumption. Despite TOS being there and detailing everything, the perception is that digital media and their corporate advertisers have something nefarious to hide.
    •  Together, both have allowed fringe elements to reframe a private business arrangement

    Who’s Content Is It Anyway?
    Over the last few years, loud online activists with collectivist agendas have hi-jacked the private relationship between consumers and digital media. The small but vocal and technically sophisticated minority rages on about privacy. Some even take it a step further to prevent ad targeting and ad delivery.
    Perhaps to equivocate their latent content theft, these activists routinely delude consumers to believe that information wants to be free are that all are entitled to consume from private hands without paying or giving up anything for it. In essence, the act of consuming commercial content is being positioned as about “privacy” when it is really about something for nothing.

    Like anything people have gotten for free for a long-time, its value is now perceived to be effectively zero; a variation on game theory’s tragedy of the commons. Not surprisingly, they have gotten very spoiled and a growing number now feel entitled to an inviolate surfing session.

    We’re From the Government, We’re Here to Help You
    More disturbing, is that these same fringe activist types are also clamoring for the federal government to step in and regulate tracking and data collection in a way that other media and businesses have never been. Big government now even purports to help citizens manage their data trail better than the private sector; their National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace program is right out of George Orwell. Some are calling this cookiepocalypse, i.e. the end of cookie-based ad targeting and site measurement.

    Even within the industry ranks, there are some paradoxically misguided and/or very frustrated people that have been bullied into submission. They actually think regulation by the federal government is a good idea to end the uncertainty of it all. Think Stanford prison experiment.

    Have we not seen this movie before? Junk mail, Do Not Call List, Terrorist database, pedophiles registries, FEMA and the list goes on. Rest assured that with high-minded politicians looking for a populist cause to latch onto the likelihood of unintended consequences for the digital media industry is alarmingly high. Trusting the federal government to be the potential monitor and arbiter online activity should be chilling to any liberty-minded citizen.

    And yet user’s expectation of total privacy and entitlement remains in the wake of digital media’s self-mortgaged future. Armed with new Web browsers (thanks to Microsoft and Mozilla) and nascent black lists, recently emboldened users demand to have their cake and can eat it too. Certainly, over time these targeted ad defeating technologies will become easier to use and more widespread

    And that limits the efficacy of a digital media industry that as we’ve seen is largely based on cookies today. If digital media has a plan, advertisers would like to know about it…any day now.

    Next Post, Digital Media Lesson Part II – Saying No to Freeloaders

    The Moratorium: No, you May Not Place a Tag on the Site…

    Digital marketers, the time has come to heed the call and end the rampant chaos and confusion by putting in place page tag moratoriums. Today.


    Upon taking a closer look at the confusion and chaos that the industry has come to tolerate clearly illustrates the rationale.

    For too many and for too long, digital marketing brings with it page tagging needs that need to be executed by technical teams in other departments. Moreover, there are often precision measurement implications to retargeting and conversion tags. Although some legacy ad networks are making strategic moves, this confusion has definitely been a money-making opportunity. Adding to the confusion, the ad networks are rapidly right-sizing their staff, diversifying their offerings and/or reinventing themselves as exchanges, DMPs, DSPs, data layers and more.

    That said, the real confusion can be split into three distinct aspects of communication within the digital marketing process:

    1. Opaque Reporting – With the advent of DSP’s, OpenRTB and the IAB’s taxonomy, not sharing more performance information is problematic. From an analytics standpoint, not knowing where your high-performing audience segments are coming from and/or where they are in the conversion funnel becomes a opportuniy cost. If you are focused on conversion this makes your campaigns spray and pray.

    2. Unclear Benefit – All too often, ad networks are quick and aggressive about getting their tags placed on pages…why? More details and in plain English are needed beyond anecdotal stories and faux studies of performance success. Agencies too have an oppotunity here to better steward their client’s brands. Exactly what is the specific benefit of retargeting, optimization or incremental conversion. A simple litmus test is: proceed when and only when the level of benefit exceeds the level of effort.

    3. Data Leakage Risk – In many cases, it is not clear who owns the cookies and/or the behavioral data  vapor trail that is a byproduct of site traffic/ad campaigns. Without clarity on this important intellectual property it shouldn’t be a surprise when you find that the competitors are benefitting from the campaigns that you just ran. With the growing calls for privacy and consumer control this should not be left to chance.

    The reality is that digital media is confusing enough rife with opportunities for swirl. Client-side marketers need to continue leaning in, stepping-up and demanding more clarity about those bells and whistles. Those that are not comfortable dealing with the more technical aspects of digital marketing need to get an agency, consultant and/or in-house staff that  are experienced and have demonstrated success.

    To suggest that the technical aspects of today’s page tagging create chaos would be an understatement. Historically, page tags have fallen between the organizational cracks into the cross-functional abyss. Page tags have created serious problems for digital marketers and IT/engineering teams alike. With neither resourced properly to deal with this fast-moving technology that is growing more complex – mayhem and frayed relationships are an all too common result.

    The good news is that technology is now available to help deal with the chaos: universal tag management systems like BrightTag, Tealium, Ensighten and TagMan can help. The technology also offers three different kind of benefits:

    1. Tag Management – There is no question that proliferating page tags are the Achilles heel of most digital marketer and site IT/engineering teams. Today page tags are often late being implemented due to resource constraints with seemingly simple requests triggering requirements-level justification. As a result, in order to get any tags in place the real need is often scaled back to avoid the upfront time – that means a less than ideal deployment and less meaningful measurement. If the tags actually do get implemented, they are at certainly risk of randomly disappearing mid-campaign further compromising measurement. Last, once they are live, some page tags are escape notice and are never decommissioned upon campaign end. Don’t expect ad networks to remind you to remove their tags. Phantom cookie pools are probably rampant.

    2. Data Sharing – Beyond rendering tags on pages at the right places and the right times, the better tag management systems are being baked into site CMS (content management systems) to enable the routine passing of data attributes. Instead of hot-rodding simplistic 3rd party ad server container tags, the newer platforms are deeply integrated and have Web-based interfaces that marketing, IT and agencies can access. A huge benefit of this is avoiding the software development-QA queue and the subsequent management hassle of dealing with one-off JavaScript code.

    3. Tag Latency – Most page tags are “dumb,” meaning that they always fire all the time. So-called “smart” tags now offer conditional tag rendering, which provides marketers with even more precise control. More advanced approaches like BrightTag’s take advantage of super-fast asynchronous server-server connections, i.e. while the page is downloading in the user’s browser. If your page tag functionality can’t be called through their server-side API connection then latency is unavoidable.

    The result of this is compromised measurement and unnecessary latency putting digital ad campaigns at risk. It just doesn’t have to be this way with universal tag management technologies that make the entire process easier. For the first-time ever, agency ad ops, analytics, media planning and engineering teams have the chance to collaboratively and proactively manage burgeoning page tags.

    A recent article by Joe Marchese of MediaPost, Putting Lipstick On The Banner puts it best. While I vehemently disagree with the assessment of display ad efficacy (there’s more to display than clicks), Mr. Marchese does make a good point about the apparent pretzel logic of digital media.

    Already challenged to explain the value of their existing campaigns, by adding more complexity digital marketers are usually not really improving their campaigns. With more retargeting, research and tracking tags on the horizon (bright-shiny objects) – savvy digital marketers and even partners can see why getting their house in order with their own version of The Moratorium makes total sense.

    The message of The Moratorium to ad networks, data providers and other meta media purveyors is a simple one: don’t bother asking for page tags unless you’re also bringing solutions to the chaos and confusion that you’re also bringing. Behind it is a more sustainable business relationship built on transparency and success.

    Digital marketers will continue to get the results that they deserve, until they demand better from media partners and even digital agencies.

    Until then the answer should be: No, you may not place a tag on the site.

    New for 2011! Standardizing the Definition of View-through

    It has been over 17 years since the advent of the Netscape Web browser in 1993 and almost as many years since the first AT & T banner ads were served on Back then, the Internet was heralded as the most accountable medium ever.

    Fast-forward to 2010: the digital advertising industry has gone mainstream and will likely generate more than $25 Billion (US only). At the same time, a subject that concerns far too many people is declining or flat click-through rates. Last week’s gushing “news” from a rich media vendor that clickthrough rates have supposedly leveled off after years of decline is a good example. 

    Definition of Insanity
    In a business that obsesses about such meaningless metrics, the digital advertising industry simply cannot continue worrying about click-through rates. Although most will recognize that the novelty of clicking banner ads has largely worn off, this measure which still provides almost no insight on the effectiveness of most campaigns just won’t go away – regardless of marketing objectives.

    In the no man’s land somewhere between the ad server and site tracking is an analytics oddity called viewthough: a useful albeit tortured metric. Testament to this is thats not one of the major industry trade groups recognizes viewthrough by including it in their standards glossaries:  IAB, OPA, ARF or the WAA.

    Despite early work by DoubleClick, plenty of practioner interest and ongoing research by ComScore, the digital advertising industry still somehow lacks an official definition of a viewthrough. At times, it seems like we’re all too often measuring what is easy or expedient. And, clearly that is not working for the industry.

    Here is a sampling of viewthrough articles over the last 10 years:

    • Lilypad White Paper Response Assessment in the Web Site Promotional Mix (2/1997) A very early attempt by the author to describe the phenomenon in the context of measuring ad response; see the diagram.Online Awareness Model of Banner Advertising Promotional Models. At that time there was not yet a way to measure such passive behavior.
    • Conversion Measurement: Definitions and Discussions (9/2003) An early article that focused on “people that ultimately convert but did not click”. Technically, viewthroughs are not people and are probably better described as visits. Also, depending on the campaign objective, a conversion event is optional.
    • Neglecting Non-Click Conversions (11/2003) A pretty thorough piece on the subject, although the term “viewthrough” is not used and there is again an emphasis on conversion.
    • Lies, Damn Lies and Viewthroughs (8/2005) Again, the focus is exclusively on viewthrough conversion, which is clearly a trend. However, it is misleading as it misses all the non-converter traffic.
    • The Most Measurable Medium? We Still Have A Lot To Do! (9/2007) David Smith actually made a literal plea for the industry trade groups to define viewthrough. A great idea, unfortunately it fell on deaf ears and several years later not much has changed.
    • Why view-through is a key component of campaign ROI (9/2010) provides a more balanced look at what viewthrough is but still brings up conversion. Also, th acronym “VTR” is confusing as that is what most people might consider a viewthrough rate similar to how a “CTR” means clickthrough rate.
    • Different Views of View-Through Tracking (10/2010) More of the same, although this article actually quotes Wikipedia (scary) and further convolutes the matter referencing a Google Display Network definition that focuses on viewthrough conversion. Consistent with the theme, the term VTR is used to mean viewthrough conversion rate not view-through rate – two very different measures. On the upside the potential of viewthrough for media planning and optimization was right on.

    Curiously absent from the ongoing discussion is what viewthrough inherently represents: measurable incremental value from an affirmative self-directed post-exposure response. With just syndicated panels and qualitative market research to divine results, traditional electronic media could never quantify this .

    At the same time, the advertising industry now has over 10 years of similar “directional” qualitative research focused on the familiar yet ephemeral measurements of post-exposure attitudes and intentions (notoriously unreliable). Many see these brand lift studies as rife with data collection challenges and ultimately of dubious value. Just this year, Professor Paul Lavrakas on behalf of the IAB released a critical assessment of the rampant practice.

    Parsing The Metrics
    It is bizarre that many digital marketers insist on defining viewthrough rates in conversion terms while clickthrough rates are always measured separate from subsequent conversion rates. Mixing metrics has confused the matter but effectively left viewthrough to be held to the higher standard of conversion. Ironic, since very few clickthrough (in volume and rate terms) even result in conversion.

    While “clickthrough rate” is always understood to be relative to impressions (# of clicks / # of impressions), “viewthrough rate” seems to have skipped the middle response step and gone all the way to conversion. That doesn’t make sense when there are so many other factors that influence the purchase decision after arriving on a Web site.

    To be very specific, viewthrough rate (VTR) should be similarly calculated, i.e. # of (logical) viewthroughs / # of impressions. “Logical” means that the viewthrough is observed where a branded post-exposure visit is most likely to happen analogous to the target landing page of a click-through;usually this means the home page. 

    Measurement Details
    The real problem underlying the apparent confusion is that viewthrough measurement invokes several raging and simultaneous, inter-related and often technical debates: branding vs. response, optimization, cookie-deletion, cookie-stuffing, panel recruitment bias, correlation vs. causation and last-click attribution. Anyone one of these arguments can cause a fight.

    Nonetheless, in defining what viewthrough actually means it would be helpful to overview the two basic ways of measuring view-through:

    1. Cookie-based: This a browser-server technique that relies on cookie synchronization between the ad server and the target brand site. When the user receives the ad, a cookie is set on their browser that is later recognized upon visit to the target site, which is then matched via speical page tags back to the associated campaign. There are several ways this can be done, e.g.  DART for Agencies (DFA)/Atlas/Mediaplex page tags, ad server integrations (Omniture) or ad unit ridealong pixel tracking (Coremetrics). Optionally, PSA campaigns can be run alongside a camapign for a simultaneous test-control comparison of viewthrough “true” lift;essentially you can measure a baseline amount of viewthrough traffic that would end-up at the site anyway. Downside: subject to browser cookie limitations.
    2. Panel-based: Alternately, a standing Internet behavioral panel can be utilized, e.g. ComScore and Compete. In this approach, two comparable groups are observed: an exposed test group and an unexposed control group that represents the baseline viewthrough. The difference between the rate by which the test group (exposed to ad campaign) and the control group (received PSA or other’s ads) subsequently visit the target site reveals the lift that is explained by the presence of display advertising. This method may also include ad or page tracking, but does not require cookies. Downside: subject to panel bias.

    The Impact of Time
    Next, an additional layer to viewthrough measurement that is worth mentioning is time, i.e. delayed response. Like traditional advertising media, display ads exhibit an asynchronous response curve where the effect of the advertising decreases over time.In our real-time data collection world, it seems the common sense realities of human behavior are often overlooked.

    Many factors can impact the viewthrough response curve, including messaging, frequency, share of voice and creative execution to start. And, one size does not fit all: a considered purchases could reasonably have longer shopping cycles than CPGs. Depending on the method of measuring view-through, typically 30 days or 4 weeks are often used as initial “lookback windows.”

    Et Cui Bono?
    Although that was fairly straightforward, as soon as viewthrough is connected to a site conversion (through deeper page tracking), the thorny issue of attribution arises (and cookie-based measurement is implied). Viewthrough measurement often goes off on a tangent t this point because there are two layers to attribution.

    • Channel attribution is simply put: which digital channel is assignedtr credit for the conversion event? Measuring display advertising happens to be more complex and most site metrics tools punted on tracking this capability. That means that simpler response channels like paid search, natural search, affiliates, CSEs and email to receive last credit as a default. For many marketers, measuring conversion attribution or participation gets complex and often political very quickly.
    • Media attribution gets really contentious, especially for lead generation and ecommerce-oriented marketers. Performance ad networks often insist on having their own special page tag in place where the conversion event occurs;in this way they can independently measure conversions and potentially optimize their ad delivery. The problem is that there usually are multiple ad network vendor tags on the conversion event page and all of them will count the page load as a conversion. Worse, this is an easy way for the ad network to shoehorn themselves a retargeting cookie pool. Unchallenged, media vendors may claim credit for everything such that marketers end up overpaying for the same conversion. Alternately, some very Byzantine schemes have arisen to guestimate credit. 

    Despite all of the above, here is a working definition of a viewthrough for 2011:

    Definition of View-through
    Viewthrough is a measure of the passive but self-directed impact from a partiucular display ad unit (banner, rich media, video or audio). The viewthrough event follows one or more ad exposures and when the ad unit is clickable can be post-click (initial click visit timed-out) or post-impression (with no click). Importantly, a viewthrough may or may not be associated with a purchase conversion event but must be associated with a target page load or other high-value action. VTR or viewthrough rate is calculated as # of viewthrough / # of impressions.

    Viewthroughs decay over time from ad exposure. In-flight viewthrough are observed during the live ad campaign while the post-flight “vapor-trail” begins immediately after the associated ad is served.

    Don’t like this definition? Come up with a better one or edit the above…and, the sooner the better or the industry might get stuck with this sketchy Wikipedia entry.

    Control Your Ad Preferences!

    With all the hub-ub from the New York Times, WSJ, gubment (including former Black Panther and Chicago’s very own Bobby Rush) and consumer fanatics you must be growing VERY concerned. For your handy reference below is a list of major consumer settings panels where you can adjust your advertising preferences that is actually much easier than correcting information on your credit report.
    • Blue Kai – by far the most interesting. Plenty of behavioral ad targeting fodder in here. Also, you can really see the presence of offline credit ratings companies busily creating a whole new revenue stream off you; interesting that because it is just as creepy yet harder to see.
    • Exelate -not as behavior dominated but many interest categories.
    • Lotame – fairly innocuous interest and sub-interest categories with observed behavior.
    • Google – comprehensive interest-based; no observed behavior.
    • Microsoft – another comprehensive list of interests; no observed behavior
    • Yahoo – fairly deep interest profile; no observed behavior.
    • Safecount –  totlly different with no behavioral segments but plenty of ad creative and sites you’ve been to; no interest preferences here.
    If anyone has any other suggestions for the above list, please drop me a line!

    If you really don’t want advertising tailored to you and you can set your NAI opt-out cookie and then get lots of irelavant ads – enjoy!

    Also, in case you were looking for a Flash cookie control panel to view and/remove such locally stored objects:

    Last, don’t be evil and enjoy your new Google Toilet ™!

    Chicago Analytics?

    I’m always interested in connecting (and reconnecting) with colleagues in the Chicago area; especially those working in the crazy field of online measurement. The other day I received an urgent request from, warning that the Chicago Data and Strategy Consortium meet-up was about to be canceled! So, I volunteered myself to prevent that from happening…

    Lincoln Park Lagoon looking southeast.

    Why? I personally, would like to see an informal group of professionals working in this nascent field that isn’t always served by other local groups like Chicago AMA, CIMA, national groups like IAB, OPA and the more software-oriented or social/networking groups. Ideally, less drinking and more learning. Thin overhead and easy to manage…maybe even invitation-only?

    In what areas of analytics and research are people interested?

    Contact me and let me know what you think…we’re all busy people and all at different stages of our respective careers.

    Tired of Doom & Gloom in the Online Ad Biz?

    May want to read on… The IAB announced the 2007 stats. While they are slow in coming, these reports are usually very interesting and full of good insight.

    • For 2007, revenues totaled $21.2 bil, exceeding 2006 performance by 26 %, itself the former record year.
    • Q4 2007 Internet advertising revenues hit $5.9 billion, representing historic revenues for a single quarter and a 24% increase over the same period in 2006.
    • This is the fourth consecutive year and 13th consecutive quarter of record results.
    FY 2007
    FY 2006
    CPM or Impression
    45% ($9,492)
    48% ($8,102)
    Performance Deals
    51% ($10,817)
    47% ($7,933)
    4% ($897)
    5% ($844)

    Sure is interesting to see performance deals exceeding CPM-based advertising…

    Full IAB-PWC Report