If you have the sneaking suspicion that your digital ad spend isn’t working hard enough, it turns out you’re probably right.

Hundreds of millions of pounds and dollars are being wasted each year on digital ads which are served but never viewed.

New figures from comScore show that more than half of digital ads (54%) are never seen by consumers. It’s a colossal waste, and demonstrates the need for brands and marketers to reassess their digital marketing approach.

As things stand, brands are buying thousands of impressions on a cost per thousand basis and blithely accepting the reported click-through rate (CTR) as an accurate metric of ad performance and ROI.

It’s become accepted as the nature of the medium that the number of clicks achieved by a campaign is vastly lower than the number of impressions served.

Marketers often think that switching to a rival ad network is the answer, and effectively operate a revolving door of recruiting ad networks that promise performance, under deliver, and then are exited in favour of the next agency.

Any measure of an ad’s performance is entirely pointless unless it could be viewed by a person. A greater emphasis on making ads viewable to consumers is surely also a focus on the fundamental goal of brand advertising – to actually make an impression on consumers.

An ad which is served but not seen is pure waste – and brands should expect more from their marketing activity. They should insist on metrics which show the number of ads that have actually been viewed by consumers.

Viewability needs to be the starting point for campaign assessment – clicks, engagement, interaction rates and all other metrics can only be properly considered once it’s understood how many people saw the ads.

However, the issue is exacerbated by the implicitly low expectations of ad viewability by current industry standards. The “viewable ad metric” used for the comScore research – taken from the Making Measurement Make Sense (3MS) initiative – is that half an ad’s pixels must be in view for at least a second.

The 3MS initiative might have commendable aims, but this definition is hardly a measure of ad success. It means that of the 46 per cent of ads which were ‘seen’ by consumers in the comScore study, many may have only displayed half the creative to consumers and for only a single second.

The industry focus has to be on deploying ads designed to be viewable in their entirety. After all – marketers don’t spend their time, ingenuity and budget developing ads so only half an ad creative can be seen.

Marketers pay for consumers to see their full ad creative and all of the ads that they’ve paid for.

Brands and ad suppliers must be willing to shoot for the goal of greater viewability, otherwise they’re just accepting that their ads will never reach their potential. A radical shift in approach is needed in terms of a campaign’s objectives, format, and placement.

There are five key things brands need to do:

1. Make viewability a top priority

Marketers should start asking for viewability statistics from online ad suppliers, for measures on the number of ads that were viewable, and the average percentage of the creative that was viewable to the consumer.

The IAB’s current definition of a viewable ad – half an ad being seen for one second – is a pretty low base to start from, and marketing managers should be looking to far exceed such minimum standards.

2. Select 'on-demand' ad formats

Consumers are more likely to view, interact and engage with the entire creative of a digital ad when they can do so on their own terms. Choosing ad formats that only launch on each consumer’s action places added guarantees that ads served are viewed. 

3. Native ad formats will be more viewable 

Any ad format that can only be displayed around content is already at a viewability disadvantage as such formats rely on their ability to distract the consumer from what they’re focusing on – the content. To ensure that ads get viewed marketers need to reach consumers with formats that are placed natively with content, not around it. 

4. Make the creative compelling 

Crucial to any campaign of course – but imperative to maximising viewability – is how compelling the creative is. Whilst re-purposing creative originally devised for offline channels can still be compelling enough to attain high viewability levels, mobile and desktop mediums have particular creative needs to attain optimum viewability. 

5. Be relevant to the content and the consumer

Consumers are much more likely to view an online ad in its entirety when it’s more than just an ad to them. Ads should deliver an online ad experience that actually enhances the content by being relevant to the editorial, entertaining and useful to consumers. 

comScore has confirmed the long-held, nagging suspicion of marketers that not enough people are seeing their ads, but the scale of the viewability problem is still vastly under played.

It’s taken far too long for the industry to make this a priority – and even given the evidence, it’s taking far too long for brands to react. Take a quick action to sort it out.

Phone your digital ad account manager now, and ask them how many ads are viewable.


Infographic image credit: OnScroll

Tom Pepper

Published 13 August, 2013 by Tom Pepper

Tom Pepper is UK MD at Vibrant Media and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can folliow Tom on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn.

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Comments (6)

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There is a world of difference between a viewable ad and a viewed ad.

People suffer from ad blindness. Even if the ad is displayed in front of them, they will probably not pay it any attention.

You only brushed on that in #3.

almost 5 years ago


Tom Pepper

Agreed - whilst this piece focused on the challenge of Ads not being viewed i think there is a significant issue of users increasingly blocking out the standard ad placements around the page. This is demonstrated in the declining performance of standard display.

I believe Digital Advertising needs to be relevant, innovative, engaging and ideally user initiated to cut through the cluttered environment online.

i think the IAB's rising star formats are a good example of this.


almost 5 years ago



Whoa Tom, think about what you're saying.

If the cost was measured by how many ads were really seen, then the agencies' commissions would be more than halved.

There's no way they are going to let that happen. (te he)

almost 5 years ago


Peter Wallace

I definitely agree that viewable ads should be a key element of what advertisers are considering regarding measurement. I think we will start seeing more publishers talk about this metric. This is of course already a consideration in DSP bidding strategies; however transparency will increase and remuneration will start to be based on this more and more.

What need to be figured out first are universally agreed metrics and standards. The fact is that the industry has tried to plough on ahead with the "data revolution" with attribution modelling and the like. In reality by doing this I feel it has missed out on some of the basics. My concern is a level of disillusion and confusion towards measurement may begin to arise with the complexity applied.

almost 5 years ago


Ephraim Bander

Imagine a world where you would know if an ad was actually SEEN not just in screen and how long the ad impression was SEEN?

In screen does not mean SEEN.

Now you can.


almost 5 years ago


Benfits of SEO

The nuances of digital marketing continue to amaze. Great well thought out article.

almost 5 years ago

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