Programmatic trading has grown to dominate digital display advertising. Accounting for just 13 percent of display adspend in 2012, the value of programmatic budgets grew from $5 billion in 2012 to $39 billion in 2016 – an average growth rate of 71 percent a year. It could reach $64 billion in 2018.

Publishers welcome the growth, but increasingly they are having to face up to the challenges automated trading can bring. High on that list, at least in the minds of advertisers, has been the issue of viewability.

Viewability started to become an issue three or four years ago, as programmatic trading really started to take off and the established relationship between buyer and seller was gradually intermediated. Wanting a way to quantify the quality of the ads that they were buying, advertisers began looking at the concept of viewability – ads seen rather than ads served. Unfortunately for publishers, the numbers weren’t good.

There are various studies in the market that try to put a number on the extent of the problem. VP Business Operations for Europe at Sovrn, Babac Vafaey, says studies within its own ad exchange show a higher than average viewability, but more general studies seem to hover around a similar mark:

“If you are trading programmatically across a range of different buying points, you would be well placed to say between half and 40 percent of your ads go unseen.”

Vafaey believes advertisers’ initial reaction was to use this as a stick to beat publishers with. “It made a really exciting headline for the buy side; ‘Half your ads aren’t seen’. They started to use it as a bargaining chip with their supply side partners.”

Over the last 18 months, viewability has become an accepted way of measuring the quality of ads. The problem now is that the tools used to measure viewability don’t serve the sell side as well as the buy side. Publishers are looking at how to deliver the higher quality being asked for, but in a way that rewards the investment they are making in developing valuable audiences and content.

Vafaey explains that currently, no matter how a user engages with a page, they are served ads inside the same templated environment. “An ad seen for one second, compared with an ad seen for 40 seconds, a minute, two minutes, has the same value – that’s wrong.”

He says Sovrn has set out to redress that balance, creating tools that support Viewable Engaged Time (VET), a user engagement metric that enables publishers to sell inventory on their website based on user engagement rather than impressions alone.

“With all ads viewable above the minimum benchmark set by the IAB, publishers should be able to set their own minimum and a maximum quality level on an impression and charge accordingly,” he says.

VET allows publishers to value the best elements of their content above others, making impressions with higher engagement available to advertisers at a premium, but through a transparent process. “We saw that as an opportunity, especially where the buy side is looking for more accountability and more transparency in the quality of ads that they are buying,” says Vafaey.

VET units only create new ad serving opportunities after 30 seconds of viewable engaged time from users. If a reader leaves the browser window or scrolls the unit out of view, it stops counting viewable engaged time and no new ads are served in that zone until the ad is in view and the reader is engaged. “We also stop counting if a user is inactive for a set period, which we call the disengagement threshold, from between five to ten seconds” says Vafaey.

The engagement metric is powered by 10 user events collected on the page through VET-enabled ad tags. These include mouse and keyboard moves, and on a mobile, touch events. “These are all signifiers that a user is engaged on a page,” Vafaey says.

There are two aspects to Sovrn’s VET approach. First are the tools that enable the publisher to understand the positioning of ads on the page, optimising viewability and engagement. The second is the opportunity to action improvements. “It’s insight, and then actioning insight,” says Vafaey, “It allows the publisher to create their own custom currency around the pricing of ads.”

Every publisher’s two most important attributes are their audience and the attention that audience pays to their content. For the future, Sovrn wants advertisers to be able to target users across its publisher network according to traditional demographic data but also according to engagement levels.

“Quality publishers need more tools to be able to differentiate themselves,” says Vafaey. “They can now go to market and sell their audience’s time.”

At Digital Media Strategies in London, February 20th to 23rd, Sovrn will be presenting insights from their forthcoming whitepaper. The presentation will detail research on how to engage users, increase revenue and tackle some of the biggest myths around viewability.

For more information visit DMS on Wednesday, 23rd February, 2017.