Verizon Communications raised a few eyebrows earlier this month when it announced plans to acquire AOL for $4.4 billion. It seemed a lot to pay just to acquire content to push through its various digital channels (properties include The Huffington Post, TechCrunch, Engadget, MAKERS and AOL.com). But the real heart of the deal is AOL’s programmatic advertising platforms, which will allow Verizon, in theory, to spring ahead on the digital ad targeting and viewability front, taking on Big Kahunas Google and Facebook in order to drive up fresh revenue from its mobile services in particular.
It’s no secret that digital and mobile engagement is escalating. Benedict Evans, an analyst at the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, said that the smartphone industry is now shipping nearly three times as many devices as the PC industry did at its peak. And, Americans spend literally half of their waking hours in front of a screen.
But from an advertising perspective, who is capturing those eyeballs? And how do brands quantify there value of those eyeballs?
To answer the first question, consider that the vast majority of mobile video viewing today comes in the form of snackable clips that people post and share through social media platforms. As a result, Google and Facebook together control more than 55 percent of the $42.6 billion worldwide mobile ad market, according to eMarketer. And that's a reality that content and access providers like Verizon would very much like to change.
"If you're a media company and you see that more than 50 percent of all mobile ads are going to Facebook and Google, you need to really recheck your assumptions about how you're going to compete," Ari Paparo, CEO of ad technology company Beeswax, told the New York Times.
To compete, making ads more effective—that is, more targeted, relevant and more watched—is the name of the game. As is being able to measure these qualities with proven metrics.
As the industry matures, ad success benchmarking is moving from 'impressions,' (i.e., how many times a page with the ad embedded within it is shown to site visitors) to actual visibility (i.e., how many times the ad itself is actually shown). Last year, the Media Rating Council issued new guidelines for viewability, which state that 50 percent of pixels must be in the viewable portion of an Internet browser for a minimum of one continuous second to qualify as a viewable display impression.
"The shift from a 'served' impression to a viewable impression standard will provide marketers with a more accurate way to quantify their investment and deliver increased value for all parties involved in brand advertising," MRC said.
But, according to Google analysis of data collected from the popular ad server DoubleClick, YouTube and other online video properties, only about half of video ads actually viewable. Of non-viewable ads, 76 percent were in a background tab or never on screen at all. The remaining 24 percent were scrolled off-screen or abandoned in fewer than two seconds.
"Viewability is top of mind for many advertisers and publishers now that the Media Rating Council has lifted the viewable transaction advisory for video," Google noted in the report. "Seeking enhanced ROI, brand advertisers hope to ensure that their video ads are seen. Publishers are receiving more RFPs and are looking to enhance site viewability, using viewable impressions as a currency to do so."
The size of the viewing player matters too. Smaller video players exhibited the lowest viewability rates, with just 20 percent of video ads that appeared in 300x250 pixel players meeting the viewability standard.
"Advertisers seeking viewable impressions should look at high viewability sites that engage in best practices for video viewability," Google advised. "In general, advertisers should consider investing their spend in inventory comprised of larger video ad sizes to enhance viewability."
This is all critically important, because inventory that offers high viewability and ad completion rates can command higher price points for assets that drive the highest engagement, shifting the monetization model. Basing price points on ad completions, content providers can sell inventory at an eCPM (effective CPM) rate that is higher than their typical CPM rate.
To that point, AOL's programmatic ad tech is a powerhouse, and one of the few platforms that works at scale, according to Roger Entner, an industry analyst at Recon Analytics. "This is really about AOL's advertising platform," he told USA Today. "It's one of the few working video advertising platforms out there. Verizon bought it for a relatively cheap price."
The ONE platform, as its name suggests, is a unified platform with predictive analytics that provide immediate insights on metrics like reach, frequency and performance, and post-campaign insights that look across all screens and formats to determine overall viewability. It’s format-, screen- and inventory-agnostic, for tracking and targeting ads across screens.
So, Verizon just gained itself a significant competitive chip in the digital ad arena with which to take on the dominant advertising platers, which is a particularly relevant point considering that it’s prepping a mobile over-the-top (OTT) service. The AOL targeting platform, combined with Verizon’s wealth of network-based information about its subscribers, has the potential to create a relevancy engine with the ability to far surpass the engagement levels enjoyed by Facebook and YouTube at the moment.
For its part, Verizon called the buy a 'significant step' in building its digital and video platforms to drive future growth.
"Verizon's vision is to provide customers with a premium digital experience based on a global multiscreen network platform," commented Verizon chairman and CEO Lowell McAdam. "This acquisition supports our strategy to provide a cross-screen connection for consumers, creators and advertisers to deliver that premium customer experience ... we've been strategically investing in emerging technology, including Verizon Digital Media Services and OTT, that taps into the market shift to digital content and advertising. AOL's advertising model aligns with this approach, and the advertising platform provides a key tool for us to develop future revenue streams."
Verizon should move quickly however; other ad tech vendors are already looking to supercharge their viewability bona fides. Ooyala for instance has introduced a new feature in its video ad campaign management workflow that enables clients to book campaigns based on ad completion, in addition to traditional CPMs.
Customers of Ooyala's Videoplaza ad serving software can use viewability-based measurement for a more accurate look at audience metrics, based on how long a viewer watched a particular video advertisement. They can then tailor ad campaign goals based on certain completion events or set delivery goal benchmarks.
"The industry will see a major flight to quality for video advertising in 2015, of which viewability and measurement will be major components," said Sorosh Tavakoli, senior vice president of ad tech for Ooyala. "It's a natural next step as the market scales and matures. Most notably, viewability metrics eliminate much of the angst advertisers have around fraud and ambiguous impressions. Delivering measurement based on true engagement provides a new level of trust and transparency, and that will ultimately help move major advertising budgets online."
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