The Association of Medical Media plans to hold a meeting to establish an industrywide viewability standard. Photo credit: Leon Lee/Creative Commons

A group of medical publishers will attempt to develop a new industry standard for digital advertising viewability, a much debated topic that has vexed the broader advertising industry.

Viewability—how long is long enough for a user to have viewed a digital ad successfully—has cropped up in recent years as one of the more challenging media issues, and one that needs to be addressed as the business of digital advertising matures. In healthcare, experts say, it’s no different.

“There’s more pressure to account for dollars,” said Dori Cappola, VP of media at Klick Health, who adds that clients now ask: “‘Why is my dollar not being spent wisely?” when they read references to fraud and viewability.

This is why the Association of Medical Media plans to hold a meeting Feb. 4 with healthcare publishers, agencies and their clients, with an aim of establishing an industrywide viewability standard. The organization—members of which include the American Medical Association, the New England Journal of Medicine and Kantar Media—is also advocating to postpone tying viewability of ads to payments until such a standard is established. (Haymarket Media, which publishes MM&M and a portfolio of HCP-focused digital properties and imprints, is a member of the association.)

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The group’s perspective is that professional medical content differs from other online advertisers, such as the consumer packaged goods and automotive sectors. “It is distinguished from general web content in many ways, including in its scarcity and its value to the end reader,” the AMM said in a statement.

There is already a viewability standard in place. In 2015 the Interactive Advertising Bureau and the Media Rating Council said that if 50% of users view a digital ad for one second, that ad is considered viewed. These organizations also developed a standard for video viewability, and one for mobile is expected to be announced this year, according to Peter Kosmala, SVP of government relations for the 4A’s—the American Association of Advertising Agencies, a national trade association. Healthcare stakeholders, including drugmakers and device makers, were involved in establishing those standards, he adds.

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But RJ Lewis, the AMM’s viewability task force chairman, described the 50% viewability standard as “arbitrary.

“More and more agencies charge or only pay on viewable impressions or insist on a minimum threshold of viewability,” said Lewis, who is president and CEO of eHealthcare Solutions.

A number of factors have contributed to making viewability one of the most talked-about topics in the general digital advertising sector.

Not only is the technology improving and digital spending increasing, more websites are taking ads, which means there are greater placements to be had. But in response, more users are downloading ad-blocking software, which affects viewability. In addition, agencies are increasingly demanding higher rates of viewability, and some large publishers have allowed significantly higher viewability standards, such as Conde Nast last year agreeing to 100% viewability with GroupM, the world’s largest media company.

How agencies measure viewability varies, as do the viewability requirements for different brands, despite the 50% standard established by the advertising trade groups. There is still lingering confusion among agencies and publishers, said Aryeh Lebeau, EVP of client operations at Remedy Health Media.

“There’s a lot of variability in what those standards are,” Lebeau said. And now “at the beginning of last year and seriously this year, agencies are starting to contract on viewability.”

If an ad is 100% viewable on a less-read blog but there is zero conversion, the campaign is useless, noted Klick’s Cappola. But if an ad is 50% viewable on The Wall Street Journal‘s site, but every user converts, that would be considered a much more successful campaign.

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“Viewability is one piece in a puzzle,” Cappola said. “Until there’s a solution, it’s hard to know.”

Where does this leave medical advertisers?

Well, industry experts have been saying that drugmakers will likely put more emphasis on digital advertising as brand marketing becomes more targeted to certain patient populations and manufacturers lose direct access to physicians and other prescribers. That could expose more advertisers to the vagueness of viewability and highlight the need to find a solution that makes sense given the nuances of medical advertising, notably content aimed at healthcare providers.