Screen Time Part 2: Folds and Fields

I was talking to a publisher about a client who had decided they only wanted to pay for ad impressions rendered above the fold. I sat smugly on the familiar, victory-bound side of the fold argument, offering the usual data and analogies to enlighten my colleague on the fallacy of the fold. The fold was an illusion, I argued, and we’d be fools to attach business commitments to it.

After the conversation I thought about it some more and realized I’d made an error. I was correct in my arguments but I was completely wrong about the problem. I had a mini-epiphany:

  1. As long as clients ask about The Fold, The Fold exists.
  2. If someone has decided something is important, it’s difficult to convince them that thing doesn’t exist. You have to replace it with something else.

The Fold exists and that’s OK

Denying the existence of a ghost will only make it grow bigger. - Greenlandic proverb

(I saw that on Borgen yesterday.)

I think we can agree that in digital contexts there’s a notion of a “fold”. And that it refers to the vague, relative mark determining what is visible to the user without their having to scroll. What we tend to disagree about is the value placed on it.

Something to remember is that while a lot of the ideas about the fold are misguided, the high regard for the fold comes from a well-intended place—people want their stuff to be seen.

Denying the existence of the fold is a losing battle. But we can shift focus away from it by paying attention to the underlying desire and meeting that desire with something else.

From Folds to Fields

A web page can be divided vertically into a number of zones, or what are sometimes called fields. Fields may simply define content groupings or they can be mapped to assumptions about user behavior. For example, a user who’s scrolled to the bottom of a page may be in a different mode than one who’s just landed at the top of the page.

“Above the fold” is an example of a field. (The fact that it’s the only field we’ve bothered to name may have something to do with its popularity.)

Pages unfold over time

If we think about an article page on a news site, we can imagine dividing the page by the sequence of interaction, i.e. the sequential steps a user goes through when reading an article. A simple division might be Beginning-Middle-End, like this:

In the Beginning, the user has just arrived and is in an important decision making mode, judging whether to commit to the story or bounce. All potential actions in the Beginning field, including ads, are competing with the story. To the degree that ads are interested in clicks, ads in this field (which is basically the Above the Fold field) are hoping to either beat out the story for the user’s attention or catch the bounced user’s attention on their way out.

In the Middle, the user has somewhat committed to the story. Potential actions in this field are hoping to either pull the user away from the story or catch them at the moment their attention wanes.

In the End field, the user has finished reading the story and is faced with another important decision: what am I going to do next? This is the perfect time to proposition the user because we’re no longer competing with the story. We’re still competing with the user’s limited attention span and desire to close the tab and move on to something else, but we’re not competing with the immediate user goal, i.e. the reason they decided to visit the site.

In reality everything isn’t so neatly divided. A user may scroll back to the top before making their next decision. But this doesn’t negate the concept. It just means the inferences are a little loose.


Today, many publishers and advertisers still use this binary Above the Fold = good / Below the Fold = bad mindset. This is especially bad for the publisher for a few reasons:

  • It devalues the majority of the publisher’s real estate
  • It devalues the majority of the publisher’s audience’s time (see Chartbeat’s studies showing that the majority of engaged time is spent below the fold)
  • It ignores the fact that in some cases lower-page fields can actually offer a better opportunity for advertisers

One way for publishers to turn this around is to label the different fields (probably with sexier language than beginning, middle, and end) and assign value propositions to each. With the right narrative, the Next-Action Zone at the bottom of an article could become the coveted ad space.

Track and Field

The first step is to start measuring the fields. This is where the idea of screen time comes in: how much time are users actively spending in each field? The answer both defines the inventory and provides the data needed to sell the idea.

Due to the interest in tracking “Viewable Impressions” there are a growing number of services that provide ways to measure visibility of individual ad units. Some of these could be used to measure field activity.

(As a side note I want to point out that counting viewable impressions is not the same thing as thinking in terms of fields/zones and screen time.)

If you have development resources, you can also implement field tracking on your own. It’s not as complicated as you might think. In the final post in this series I’ll provide some code that shows how to do it.