What would you say if I told you that fully half of all the display ads you buy are never even seen by a website-user?

It’s true. In case you’re wondering, I don’t mean that the user doesn’t look at an ad that is in front of them. No. I mean that the ad is not even shown to them in the first place.

The good news is that there’s something you can do about it but you need a new metric. The missing metric is visibility.

The results of new research on the effect of display ad visibility bring to mind the old adage that is variously ascribed to Henry Ford, Lord Leverhulme or John Wanamaker: "I know half of my advertising budget is wasted – I just don’t know which half." But the age of digital marketing was supposed to provide us with the campaign measurement tools to prevent such wanton waste.

Performance marketers do better than most at avoiding waste – we tend to be obsessed with site metrics and conversion statistics, so any media buys that don’t perform typically get pulled much more quickly than they do in a big-brand agency environment. Still, the idea that 50% of the ads you buy are never even seen by a website user is a hard one to swallow. So what’s going on?

The research comes from Panos Ipeirotis, an Associate Professor and George A. Kellner Faculty Fellow at the Department of Information, Operations, and Management Sciences at Leonard N. Stern School of Business of New York University. He started looking at visibility metrics for online ads over a year ago and has since been analyzing over 1.5 billion ad impressions a day. His high level findings:

  • 38% of ads are never in view to a user
  • 50% of ads are in view for less than 0.5 seconds
  • 56% of ads are in view for less than 5 seconds

If you want to know just how fast an ad goes by when it is only displayed for half a second, check out this video from AdSafe Media:

So, let’s modify what I said earlier: 50% of ads are never seen by a website user in any meaningful sense at all. Half a second isn’t enough time to read a headline, let alone absorb any kind of message. Panos decided to drill down into the data for more insight:
Given all the metrics and combinations, it would be good to examine a few sample sites to understand better what layouts and content generate the different combinations of time on site, ad visibility, etc.

  • High time on page, high ad visibility, above the fold: Check the ZeroHedge site. This combination is the "expected" combination. Ads are visible when the page loads, users stay at the site for long (3-4 minutes median time on page), and they get exposed to the ads for long periods of time, with high probability (The probability of ad visibility above 10 seconds is greater than 70%.)
  • High time on page, low ad visibility, above the fold: Check the "That Guy with the Glasses" site. (It is better to see a representative internal page). In this site, there is a banner ad on top, but the actual content of the site is the video. So users quickly scroll down to the video and never see the top banner ad.
  • High time on page, low ad visibility, below the fold: Consider the page with puzzles at USA Today. This is a page where users spend a significant amount of time. However, they rarely see the ad, as it is rendered below the game, and users simply do not scroll down there. (Median time on page 12 minutes, with median ad visibility being 0, and probability of seeing the ad for any period of time below 10%)
  • Low time on page, high ad visibility, below the fold: Check the site http://www.everydayhealth.com/. In this site, the main banner ad is rarely above the fold. However, the users seem to habitually scroll down to the options in the lower part of the page, so they get exposed to the ad for significant amounts of time. (The probability of ad visibility above 10 seconds is greater than 40%, while the median time on page is just 20 seconds.)

This is presented in a way that is a little confusing – though I recommend reading the whole thing – but the conclusions are really clear: visibility matters. A lot. You can do media buys on the basis of super-cheap CPMs and use day-parting and be careful with the demographics of the targeted websites, and all of that is good.

But there are many places to buy remnant inventory. It is worth spending a little more time to take a look at the publishing sites themselves to see exactly where the remnant inventory is on the page and for how long it is displayed Given the choice of two equal traffic sources, it will absolutely pay to keep visibility in mind.

An extra 50% on your conversion rate would be pretty nice, amirite?