Selling ads by time, not space

I just saw some mind-bending work Chartbeat is about to release about measuring the time users spend exposed to an ad online.

As background, to quote Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile: “Chartbeat monitors activity by checking in with users every second and looking for signals (mouse movement, key strokes, etc) that show they are actively consuming the content in front of them. This means they can measure how long readers spend actively engaged on a page and what parts they’re reading. Because of this Chartbeat knows how long are actively reading while an ad is in view — both for an average user and the cumulative time of all users.” Chartbeat then did some internal research that found high correlation between engaged time exposed and a user’s ability to recall the advertiser’s brand and message. This has many implications:

* Measured this way, ads that appear down alongside the middle of a story turn out to be more valuable than the supposedly premium banners at the top of the page. That’s because people quickly scroll past those banners and all the big hair on the top of the page — logos, promos, and all that — to get to the substance of an article, where they spend time. So inventory that was undervalued becomes more valuable.

* Chartbeat suggests this means that quality content that engages people longer yields better ad performance. That, they say, would be a good thing for better content makers everywhere.

* Now web publishers can sell time like broadcasters — only this is assured exposure time. Advertisers like buying time. Will this make them more comfortable with buying on the web?

* I think this enables publishers to take on some risk for advertisers — guaranteeing them assured exposure time — thus increasing the value of what they sell.

* I wonder whether this spells trouble for the big-ass ads and takeovers we users try to escape as quickly as possible.

* I also wonder whether this spells trouble for the slideshows and other gimmicks that pump page views without increasing time spent exposed to an ad.

* I’d like to think this opens opportunities to find new value in ads next to videos and games and also — this could be important — mobile pages (though don’t think that mobile’s value will come from exposure to messaging; it will still come from knowing people and serving them relevance and value). The longer we spend on a page, the longer we see the ad, the more valuable the ad should be, right?

* I can only hope that this is another nail in the coffin of the dangerous, old-media-like metrics of unique users and pageviews. Engagement will matter more.

A sample report on an ad location:

Screenshot 2013-05-15 at 8.20.04 PM

Those who declare advertising dead are Mark-Twaining-it, I think. There are still many things to learn to find more effectiveness and value in advertising online. This is just one lesson. I say the real value of the net and mobile is in relationships: in learning more about people by delivering them more value so we can be trusted to deliver them greater relevance and value and, in turn, extract greater value from the interaction. More on that later….

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  • Daniele

    I wonder how users’ activity can be (reliably) measured on a tablet.

  • This is an interesting approach, but a bit deceptive. I was pretty engaged with this article, even taking the time to post a comment. Yet all I can recall in terms of ads is that there was a red one and a yellow one in the sidebar. The colors caught my eye, but I didn’t really take time to see what they were about.

    Users focus their eyes and attention very narrowly while reading, so just because an ad gets some screen space while I’m reading doesn’t mean I’m seeing it. However, this opens up interesting possibilities in terms of creative and in-page placement.

    • You’re absolutely right that it doesn’t guarantee you see it. What the data does suggest however is that there is a direct correlation between the amount of time an ad is in view while you are in an engaged state and your likelihood of recall etc. The implications thus are clear and somewhat intuitive, if you want to increase the chances of your ad actually being seen, then the more that ad is in front of someone’s face the more likely that is. What that means is that advertisers choosing to advertise around quality content that captures people’s attention are making a smart bet.

    • A study by Pricewaterhousecoopers claimed that brand recall and brand recognition correlated with actual exposure time, so it’s possible that it really does not matter if you look at the ads (as you do in TV) or just spend time reading things next to them.

      Nevertheless, more interesting than advertisement is measuring the impact of a story based on actual engagement (not only time spent, but scrolling behavior as well). Full disclosure: we do that at Scoopinion, where we aggregate long stories based on measured exposure

  • Interesting. But I still believe that ads that users quickly skip past at the top of the page get noticed more than the ones on the sidebar next to the content being read. If somebody is engrossed in the content, she will not take her eyes off the content to look at the ad next to it, until she has completed reading the article. Hence, the spots at the top and the bottom of the content hold more value even though their screen exposure time is less than that of the ads on the sidebar.

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  • Will Overstreet

    Very good article. From our work with media clients, we have seen the struggle they have appeasing agencies and brands that are asking for more engagement.

    The biggest challenge we have found does not come from ways in which to provide these experiences for the sponsor, the real challenge is communicating and teaching the sales team how to sell engagement when all they are use to selling are banner ads.

    We usually end up having to run training seminars to help teach them how to talk and think about engagement for advertisers.

  • John

    Another issue that I could see is idle times. There are times where I will leave my computer with a webpage up and ads floating all over the page. I will go watch a show or get something to eat all while this ad-view timer is running. I think it would produce inaccurate times and would need a serious buffer.

    Also, what would prevent fraud. Couldn’t someone just set their browser on the page and walk away with their computer set to never fall asleep?

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