With no minimum standards, ad refresh is a Wild West; it’s time, says Babac Vafaey, to agree on best practice and to focus on engagement.

As COVID-19 continues to put publishers under pressure to minimise revenue losses, discussions about ad refreshes have resurfaced. But, with the conversation focused largely on the sell-side, as well as on ethics and the user experience, some crucial points are often overlooked.

Instead of debating the virtues of certain techniques, publishers and brands should be setting their sights on how to capture audience attention and improve results. A small part of that will be an evolution of ad refresh, but there is also a wider need to move towards measuring and optimising success around engagement. Moreover, positioning reload as a short-term fix to boost revenues is not realistic – any strategy must think long-term.

What’s the real reload issue?

Refreshing online ads isn’t new; publishers have used the practice to increase how many placements they can offer buyers for more than ten years. Thanks to advancements with web browsers and the evolution in assessment technology, options for publishers to apply refreshes have expanded even further, and so has inventory availability and delivery. In fact, when a leading ad-verification platform analysed inventory across ad exchanges over a 30-day period in 2019, it found that 16% of all impressions were reloaded.

When employed effectively, this tactic can provide high value for sellers and buyers, but that’s also just where the problem lies; it often isn’t used this way. Ad refreshing still has no minimum standards and, as a result, quality varies hugely between different solutions – whether bespoke or provided through a third-party – and there is plenty of scope for dubious activity. In other words; it’s a ‘Wild West’ landscape where not all impressions are created equally.

The best solution is obvious: developing best practices that include unambiguous detail on reload interval length and how many ads can be displayed per unit. These rules will be especially vital given that research from the same ad-verification platform also revealed 3% of refreshed impressions change after less than 10 seconds – barely enough time for any ad to hook consumer interest. But to ensure maximum impact, ad delivery will also need to be tied to metrics that ensure messages have the best opportunity to captivate consumer attention and inspire further action.

Securing quality through viewability

Indicators of what key measures should be aren’t hard to find. As a rule, money flows to inventory that fuels the best outcomes, and what this high performing inventory has in common is strong viewability.

Multiple studies have demonstrated clear correlation between viewability and good results. Browsi, for instance, has found inventory with over 70% viewability achieves 25% more click-through rates (CTRs) than media offering viewability of 50%-70%. Additionally, ads that stay in view for at least five seconds power twice the CTR driven by ads visible for between one and four seconds, according to Avocet.

Of course, switching to more viewable, better-quality inventory isn’t an instant fix. While buyers are used to constantly evaluating and adjusting their ad investment, Sovrn’s own research shows transitioning budgets to high value media can take as long as three months. But optimising towards metrics that give reloaded – and wider – digital ads the best chance of gaining attention is still a step in the right direction for both buyers and the sellers hoping to earn a share of their spend.

The all-important engagement factor

The central element that should be at the heart of advertising strategy is engagement, or to be more specific, a deeper understanding of when audiences are engaged.

Ensuring digital content sparks audience attention has never been more important, not only because it’s harder to hold audience interest – with the human attention span down from 12 to 8 seconds – but also due to the impact on ad performance and audience loyalty. Past research has illustrated powerful connections between content engagement and ad effectiveness and, more recently, investigation by Lumen has also shown that with digital consumption at new heights during the pandemic, attention paid to ads has risen too.

Additionally, engagement can be used to drive multiple better outcomes for publishers – for example, boosting email subscribers. In a recent study conducted in August 2020, alongside What’s New in Publishing, engagement data was used to power email subscription prompts. Using engagement as the vehicle for driving these prompts has so far driven a 2.5x increase in the total number of monthly subscribers vs the previous six month average.

Making engagement an integral targeting layer for digital ads is therefore crucial. By tapping the hundreds of signals consumers give out when they visit web pages, publishers can precisely gauge their attention and coordinate delivery accordingly to enhance ad outcomes and the user experience.

Tests show it works: when comparing CTRs between ads that are ‘in view’ with ads that have an engaged audience, over a seven-day period, Sovrn data reveal that engagement is 3x more efficient in driving clicks than purely viewable time.

Next steps: a different focus for digital

The refresh conversation is set to keep rolling and revolving around the same old questions. For the digital media industry to move on, it’s time brands and publishers turned their gaze to what really matters: making the most of consumer attention and engagement.

This will mean a significant shift in approach. For sellers, it will be important to develop their monetisation strategies around increasing long-term value, not short-term gains. Rather than chasing vanity metrics such as page views and aiming to maximise impression volumes, they must focus on creating what buyers actually want: placements that are highly viewable and offer the ability to reach genuinely engaged audiences. In this way, publishers create two sustainable customer bases – the user, and the buyer.

From the buyer standpoint, driving change will mean demanding more of their supply vendors. For too long, there has been a view that because brands or agencies select inventory, the task of filtering it should also sit with them. This puts too much of the quality burden on buyers.

By asking for more information about users, ad quality and engagement, buyers can push supply vendors to start putting their insight to better use, curating engaged audiences and targeting them via engaged deals. By shifting the ad refresh conversation towards engagement, brands and publishers can ultimately build an overall ad system that works for everyone.