Prepare to Board the Viewability Train with IAB SafeFrame

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GRPs are coming at you…like a train,” warned George Ivie, CEO and Executive Director at the Media Rating Council (MRC). Presenting in a webinar the IAB hosted Monday, April 15, Ivie offered some insight on the buy-side push for certified viewable impressions that will eventually play a role in the all important cross-media GRPs. 

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The most difficult aspect of adopting a viewable impression has been the lack of a standard way to measure viewability, especially for ads that are rendered within iframes. The IAB’s recently released SafeFrame specification and open source reference implementation is the solution, but time is running out and the industry faces some challenges that must be overcome. 

Here’s what you need to know about viewability and SafeFrame:

The Buyer’s demand for viewable impressions is old news
Companies, such as measurement verification services, have been asking the MRC to audit their methods for measuring viewability of buyers’ ads on publisher placements long before viewability became a buzzword in today’s media.

3MS is a cross-industry coalition committed to developing brand-building digital metrics and cross-platform measurement solutions. The first principle of the initiative is to help the industry shift from currency based on “served” impressions to currency based on “viewable” impressions.

In November of last year, the MRC issued an advisory that outlines some of the limitations in measuring viewability and asked the buying and selling communities to refrain from engaging in transactions that involve viewable impressions as a currency, ideally, until the issues can be addressed. 

In Q4 2013, the MRC will lift its advisory “and the floodgates will open,” advised Ivie in a review of the MRC timeline for addressing viewability measurement. At that time, the marketplace will move on, with or without us.

Viewability measurement is fragmented
As already mentioned, several marketplace vendors are coming to the MRC to request audits on their methods for measuring viewability. The MRC is legally required to honor such requests. However, with no formal guidelines describing this new counting procedure, each company is validated against the MRC’s own stringent methodological standards and then reviewed against the company’s audited abilities.

The proliferation of methodologies for measuring viewability is actually a good thing, in that it showcases the industry’s ability to innovate and adjust to the needs of the market. However, these different methodologies represent a fragmented marketplace. Fragmentation in digital advertising has always created friction and interfered with the flow of advertising budgets.

Compounding the issue is the high level of variability across vendors. In a test on 22 live campaigns involving more than 3 billion impressions, viewable rates varied from a high of more than 78% to a low of 7%. Several reasons exist for not being able to measure viewability, but the leading cause of such variable rates was the inability to measure from within cross-domain iframes.

SafeFrame is a window into viewability
A cross-domain iframe is essentially the webpage of one server inside a container on the webpage of a different server. Measuring viewability under these conditions is the technical equivalent of trying figure out where you are in the world from within a sound and lightproof box—a task that is nearly impossible without the ability to escape the box or communicate with someone outside of it.

Some methodologies can circumvent the iFrame to a limited extent, however, with regard to current accreditations on viewability conducted by the MRC, Ivie notes that “NONE of the vendors can see ALL of the inventory.” 

While no amount of technology or distinct methodologies will likely ever be able to measure ALL inventory, the 2012 release of IAB SafeFrame 1.0 can help companies close the gap on viewable variability. 

IAB SafeFrame is a cross-domain iframe with an API that enables communication between the content in the SafeFrame and the hosting webpage. With SafeFrame in place, security is maintained while communication lifts limitations on functionality, including the ability to measure viewability on ads. 
Explaining that future accreditations on viewability will be based on a standard currently in development, Ivie predicts that SafeFrame will likely play an important role in many successful accreditations.

Challenges exist
IAB SafeFrame is a long-awaited solution to addressing issues clouding viewability measurement in cross-domain iframes. Once publishers have implemented SafeFrame, they can achieve transparency while maintaining control over the iframe-contained content served to their pages. Ad servers or vendors can also measure viewability with SafeFrame but must develop functionality to take advantage of the SafeFrame API.

The IAB has identified 3 key challenges the marketplace faces as we enter a phase of SafeFrame adoption.

1. Complexity for publishers with multiple properties: For publisher companies that own multiple properties, implementing SafeFrame across all sites is a time-consuming task made more complex by the fact that each site may operate differently. 

To address this challenge:
  • Focus on implementing SafeFrame on high-value properties first
  • Consider working with your sell-side ad server to implement SafeFrame to simplify implementation so that all you need is a JavaScript tag you can distribute to your sites that in turn implements the SafeFrame
2. Lack of testing tools for vendors: Buy-side vendors (viewability and rich media) won’t be able to capture SafeFrame data until their SafeFrame functionality is properly implemented. Vendors need a testing tool to help them with proper implementation 

To address this challenge:
  • IAB is developing a testing tool vendors can use to test their SafeFrame-enabled tags
  • Create tags that work with the SafeFrame API and test them in IAB’s testing tool when it’s available
3. Lack of established benchmarks: The market needs viewability benchmarks based on test data from SafeFrame enabled environments. Having just been released in February of this year, very few SafeFrame implementations exist for testing. 

To address this challenge:
  • Publishers should implement SafeFrame as soon as possible and begin collecting data to show what they can measure with SafeFrame
  • Vendors should use SafeFrame tags with publishers who have implemented SafeFrame and begin     collecting data that they can compare with publishers
  • Select publishers and vendors should consider working with 3MS and the MRC to re-run pilot tests that establishes comparative benchmarks to those gathered in the aforementioned MRC viewability tests
IAB can help
Ivie noted that the MRC can help a little, but that the IAB can help a lot and companies should lean on the IAB to move forward with SafeFrame adoption.

To move forward, the IAB is calling for participation in the following:
  • Publishers: Help the IAB define a “Publisher Onboarding Guide” for the industry to use as they work toward SafeFrame implementation
  • Vendors: Create tags that work with the SafeFrame API and test them in the IAB’s testing tool when it’s available
  • Publishers and Vendors: Contact MRC about participating in a round of viewability testing where SafeFrame is used. Particularly useful in these tests are companies that have already participated in earlier rounds of testing where SafeFrame wasn’t used
There is a train coming; we can’t stop it, but at least with SafeFrame you’ll be able to see it. 


About the Author 

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Steve Sullivan (with contribution from Katie Stroud)

Steve Sullivan is VP of Advertising Technology at the IAB, and on Twitter at @SteveSullivan32.


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