Breaking the mould: Viewability and creativity in the digital economy

If you visited HotWired.com on October 27 1994, your eye would have probably been caught by an unusual flashing banner emblazoned across the top of your screen. Standing at 60 pixels tall and 468 pixels wide, the internet’s first advertisement was garish, tacky and the nemesis of exasperated dial-up connections worldwide - but it was a massive success.

The advert itself was a part of AT&T’s You Will campaign, which was accompanied by a TV ad in which a narrator gazes into the future and boldly predicts a world where you can “drive across the country without stopping for directions, tuck your baby in from a phone booth or even send a fax from a beach”.

While this proved to be a reasonably accurate prediction of how the digital age would change our lives, what AT&T couldn’t have predicted was how the online ad accompanying this campaign would change advertising forever. For the first time, advertisers could directly view how many people had seen and interacted with their advert, almost instantly.  

Having viewability as a metric is the distinct advantage that separates digital from all other media types, including print and out of home. It allows brands to accurately measure the reach of their advertising, providing an instantly visible ROI when compared to other media types. This banner ad was the match that sparked a digital advertising explosion.

While the value of digital advertising was viewable (excuse the pun) from the beginning, the quality of the advertising was not. Dominated by low quality and poorly designed ads, online advertising is still marred by it’s early digital dark age. Author and media innovator Jay Samit remarked that ‘design is how you make your first impression with your consumers. Make sure it is a lasting one’ - the design of these pioneering, yet primitive, ads left a poor impression with internet users that digital is still trying to shake to this day.

But online advertising has come a long way in the two decades since its inception. Today publishers and brands are armed with innovative, high quality formats that allow creativity to thrive. In any media channel,  truly powerful brand building campaigns need beautiful and engaging creative, and in digital this is no different. These new formats offer brands and publishers the opportunity to move beyond digital advertising’s low-quality past and build a truly better user experience.

It’s this combination of new, premium quality formats and the unrivalled strength of viewability as a metric that has driven the growth of digital advertising. 2017 saw the biggest UK adspend on record with digital spend making up 60% of the £22.2bn total.

A pitfall of early digital advertising was disrupting a users experience. Today ‘skins’ offer the opportunity for brands to completely take over a page, allowing brands to include video, creative, interactive games and shoppable experiences all within the ad units.  Creating friendlier, more website-like ads is proving to be a more effective way to inspire customers to care about your brand and ultimately purchase.

I believe it’s crucial we take these lessons with us when dealing with mobile experiences too.  The IAB have recently found that 50% of buyers plan to increase digital and mobile video spending in the next year, and that this spend could increase by as much as 53%.

The need for high quality creative online is emphasised when you consider estimates that consumers are served over 15,000 digital ads monthly. As a brand you want to be amongst the 10 to 15 ads people recall. Time in view and engagement rates should be the KPIs set for high quality, brand-led creative as viewability is closely related to ad effectiveness as the only real click is if your brands sticks, and if the consumer remembers you.  

Continuing to raise creative standards can only be of benefit to the digital economy as a whole. Premium publishers gain from better quality ads being served to, and seen by, their audience because users are more likely to return if they have a good experience, and advertisers invest more as a result. In turn, greater investment is put into producing quality content, growing the volume of premium advertising inventory.

It’s famously said that quality is not an act, it is a habit. Empowered by new high quality formats, brands are now able to take full advantage of viewability as a metric and break out of patterns that the industry has been entrenched in since the first online ad was served in 1994.

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