Jumpstarting Time-Based Transactions

You better believe I was bummed by the Digiday article suggesting that the time-based guarantee movement has stalled out. Those who regularly read my opuses know I’ve long been a huge advocate for this style of transaction because time (and really engaged time, which can be used as a proxy for attention) is that universal metric that long seemed out of reach. You can easily compare time across screens and platforms, no matter if it’s digital or linear.

Yet “stalled out” is too dramatic a term. Sure, 2017 has been conspicuously quiet on the time front compared to last year when I actually moderated a panel at a conference on time and attention. The excitement seemed palpable in 2016 only to slip away. But the chief obstacle was made clear in the article: a lack of transaction mechanisms.

No Hackathon Required

At our Miami Publisher Forum in 2016, Samantha Carola of The Financial Times took us deep inside the workings of their successful cost-per-hour program. Turns out, the FT crew has cleverly rigged DFP to fill placements with engaged-time metrics, using Moat for measurement and forecasting. The session was a commendable display of sell-side ingenuity.

But I could sense the unease in the room—setting up this system was a lot of work, and maintaining it required a great deal of sweat equity. With revenue teams already stretched thin, who could spare the development and execution time and labor to build out such transactional hacks? (And then supporting sales through actually selling it? Oh boy…)

So there’s been a lot of celebrating FT and the Economist’s efforts, but not a whole lot of publishers jumping on the engaged-time bandwagon. Still, the interest is out there—I was heartened by a lengthy chat about how CPH works on the Ad Ops Slack channel the other day. In fact, that discussion got me thinking how we could regain some momentum.

A common excuse for just about everything in digital advertising is, “We have to wait for the buy-side to embrace this technology!” Even though it’s probably in their best interest, advertisers won’t jump on engaged-time guarantees if they are not easy to execute—or at least more straightforward. I wouldn’t count on DFP providing any support here anytime soon—I believe enabling time-based guarantees is mile 1,548 on the legendary roadmap.

Other tech providers are picking up the slack by evangelizing time-based buying by offering clear-cut transactional tools. We invited Parsec to explain the great potential for cost-per-second buying on mobile at our 2017 Ops conference. But there was another element of that Slack conversation that stuck with me—a comment along the lines of, so in effect you’re just buying on viewability?

Well, yeah, that’s not far off—it’s a good way to approach it. I’ve been among those perplexed by reports this year that programmatic buyers are increasingly optimizing against viewability. That seems like a poor strategy—viewability should be a given. I know it hasn’t been in the past due to some awful publisher behavior, but the introduction of viewability measurement brought sweeping design changes to premium sites. (I know I said the term premium is outdated, but that’s for inventory. Premium publishers now seem to be defined by majority human traffic and high average viewability.)

The central focus of viewability for optimization is an outgrowth of bad buy-side behavior—blind cookie-hunting with only low prices in mind. If your main goal is to optimize viewability, it’s questionable what sites you are perusing on the exchanges.

Viewability Blossoms

We’ve long talked about taking viewability to the next level, and that’s dynamically serving ads in view—being proactive about viewability means truly transacting on it. I was reminded of this when I grabbed coffee with Sovrn CMO Andy Evans the last week. The engaged-time stall-out was heavy on both our minds, so we discussed OnScroll, which Sovrn acquired in 2016 (bringing Evans into the fold).

Dynamically serving ads in view via programmatic channels and then measuring the engaged time (not just time in-view, but correlated with some kind of engagement, such as scrolling) is a gateway to an engaged-time metrics. Take the next logical steps—selling these through private marketplaces with an attached guarantee of price or spend (what the kids are calling programmatic guaranteed)—and the road ahead becomes clear. Buyers have an easy transaction mechanism.

So it turns to the sell side to proselytize this technology. Especially when a culling seems imminent, other SSPs would be wise to develop dynamic in-view products to enhance their offerings and intrigue publisher clients. But the hard work (as always) goes to the publishers, who will not only have to encourage clients indulge in a somewhat untested system (and yes, train sales on the mechanics and feasibility) but also adopt advanced workflows to ensure campaigns are delivered—and optimized.

As Evans suggests, the learnings will come fast and furious as these new metrics proliferate. But embracing SSP products based on dynamic viewability and engaged time isn’t nearly as daunting as hacking DFP like the FT.

As we roll into 2018, this seems like a prime area for publishers to offer advertisers something exciting, something that has their goals at heart. Publishers have the opportunity to move the industry forward, because I believe it’s only a matter of time before engaged time guarantees become industry standard.