Were you unable to attend Transform 2022? Check out all of the summit sessions in our on-demand library now! Watch here.

Viewability is an ongoing hot-button issue in the advertising industry. When fewer than half of all impressions are actually seen by humans – and the constant threat looms of bad actors using robotic or other means to create false non-human traffic (NHT) – how do we know what we are truly getting for our digital dollars?

A brief history of engagement metrics

Let’s take a moment to review how we got here.

Our industry was built on clicks as the definitive currency. In the early days of digital advertising, the click was all we had; it was a proxy for consumer engagement. It was the only indication we had that anyone was interested in our ads. “Eyeballs” couldn’t really be measured.

When rich media emerged, we moved beyond the click to measuring engagement. If someone rolled over an ad and interacted with it for any length of time, we knew they were interested. They were choosing to spend time with our brand, and we had an opportunity to move them further down the funnel.

Now, with video ads, we can see how long consumers are engaging with our ad. Completion rates tell us how many people have watched our video from beginning to end. If a consumer watches our full video, we know they have chosen to share a moment with us.

The challenge is that  there’s no way to know if any of those interactions are performed by actual humans. Because the digital advertising market is inherently inefficient, there is ample opportunity for fraud. And so, there is ample fraud.

Bots were created to mimic human clicks. Why? Because if a publisher can boast high traffic and click rates on their websites, they can justify charging premiums for advertising. And they can earn more revenue from advertisers who pay on a CPC-basis.

Rich media, which doesn’t rely on clicks entirely, doesn’t solve the issues. Bots built on more sophisticated algorithms were created to imitate human activity here as well. Often advertisers will find, digging deep into analytics reports, that interactions occurred on ads that were never even in view. Bots can do that; humans can’t.

The problem is more complex with video; and ad tech companies and publishers are as much to blame as the bots. As demand for video inventory grew, smaller, auto-play video ads began to emerge. But these ads, because no user action was required to initiate play, were easily manipulated by bots. Ads that were never in view seemed to boast incredible completion rates.

No time like the present for change

There’s no question that it’s time to change our digital currency. We need to shift from CPC to CPHC – Cost Per Human Click. That is, we need to pay only for the impressions that are actually seen by human eyes. I don’t think anyone will argue that point.

And yet, the Internet Advertising Bureau says this necessary shift is years away. For starters, we lack standardized technology to measure viewable impressions. Lacking that consistency, there’s no way to standardize measurement and bill for human-based digital impressions.

But the industry can’t wait. Using over-delivery or “makegoods” aren’t enough when so much of our effort is potentially wasted – and we don’t even have confidence that those impressions are actually seen.

So how can we push things further along at a more acceptable pace? For starters, marketers need to understand and acknowledge that what they’ve always wanted all along was to buy human interaction – not engagement, and not clicks. Humans.

The ad tech industry needs to then improve its value proposition to marketers and strive for 100 percent human interaction. It may not be attainable, but we have to work as if it is. Ultimately, that will require one single standard by which we measure advertising success. Vendors in the ad security, viewability, and brand safety space must combine their efforts to define what a true human interaction looks like online so we can measure against it and understand its value.

A good place to begin this effort may be with the IAB’s Technology Laboratory, which is tasked with reducing “friction associated with the digital advertising and marketing supply chain while contributing to the safe growth of an industry.” Part of the Tech Lab’s charter is to spearhead industry standards, and few standards seem as important today as those that define and eliminate NHT and fraud.

Every bit of media should be sold based on human interaction, by verifiable interaction with a human being, by verifiable view. It’s just too important to wait. We have a duty to marketers and advertisers to deliver their messages to actual human beings. If we’re not reaching people, what the hell are we all doing here?

Joe Apprendi is CEO of Collective, and Eoin Townsend is the company’s Chief Product Officer.

VentureBeat's mission is to be a digital town square for technical decision-makers to gain knowledge about transformative enterprise technology and transact. Discover our Briefings.