The click and the dead: Ad challenges in our online age
Digital display ads have it tough. Not only are online audiences more likely to be hit by lightening than to voluntarily click on them, around half of all online display ads aren't ever even seen by anyone.
Comscore, a company that measures peoples' digital habits, found that 54pc of display advertising delivered globally is never looked at. As a result, viewability has become a contentious topic, with publishers and advertisers trying to figure out how best to match ads and eyeballs.
So what's the problem? Well, publishers can't guarantee 100pc viewability due to different ad units, browsers, ad placements, measurement methodologies and user behaviour.
As a result, it's no surprise that advertisers are demanding that display ads are bought and sold based on views rather than served impressions. In February 2015, IAB Europe, an industry body, found that 84pc of brand advertisers were in favour of such a switch.
But getting consensus on viewability rates and how to value viewable buys has proved tough. Google executive Neal Mohan has compared the debates and disagreements on viewability standards to arguing over whether a recipe needs one egg or two while ignoring the fact that the oven has caught fire.
The US Media Ratings Council says a display ad is viewed if 50pc of it is on a user's screen for more than one second.
For so called pre-roll video ads - which display before content a user has actually selected - for example, 50pc of it needs to be visible on a user's screen for at least two consecutive seconds.
But media buying giant GroupM has set its own viewability standards.
For video it expects at least 50pc of an ad to be played with the sound turned on, and that the user initiate the play.
Autoplay doesn't cut the mustard for GroupM; someone's got to click on a video. For display ads, Group M expects the entire ad to be in-view for at least one second.
Condé Nast, the publisher of Vogue, Vanity Fair, Style.com and a host of other brands, has agreed to these tougher standards.
"Ultimately we want to create an environment where humans see ads," Condé Nast Chief Revenue Officer Lisa Valentino told Ad Age.
It seems like a simple objective. But there's a fly in the ointment. Some pesky humans - mostly young male ones - go to great lengths to avoid online ads altogether. They're using ad-blocking software.
Ad blockers do exactly what they say on the tin. They block ads. And they're growing in popularity. Global ad blocker usage has increased to 144 million monthly active users, according to a recent report from Adobe and PageFair.
Traditionally ad blocking was seen as a problem confined to gaming and technology websites, but that's no longer the case.
Ad-blocking rates for business news websites run as high as 20pc, with up to 15pc of traffic on entertainment and sports sites found to use some form of ad-blocking software.
What's driving this rise in advertising avoidance? A report by US bank Wells Fargo Securities found pre-roll video ads are the culprits. The report finds that millenials, adults born after 1980, find banner ads tolerable, but are turned off by any sort of interruptive advertising.
So what are content creators and publishers doing about the viewability conundrum and to combat the ad blockers?
Responses vary. Google has introduced viewability-based buying on the Google Display Network. Some content creators like ITV and Channel 4 are blocking the blockers - preventing any browser with ad blocking software from watching their videos.
Some sites have bypassed viewability issues altogether, by opting for unavoidable 'welcome' ads that pop up when a visitor first lands on their site.
Big companies like Facebook and Nielsen, as well as the IAB and a host of brands and agencies are in cahoots, trying to develop new mobile measurement standards which are more like TV standards. This would make 'opportunity to see' an advertisement a standard for measuring mobile advertising.
But let's remember that this isn't a problem unique to online advertising. It has always been difficult to gauge how many people saw and recognised any marketing message.
Marketing pioneer John Wanamaker, who was born in 1838 apparently said: "half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half".
It's somehow gratifying that, despite the advances of modern technology, advertisers are still struggling with the same old problems.