Why Audience Targeting Caused Fake News And What We Can Do About It

emilyrileyData-Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Emily Riley, CEO at Riley Strategic.

This Thanksgiving is going to be a weird one for people who work in media and advertising.

Most of us live and work in Democratic states, and many of us have relatives and friends from Republican ones. Before the fake news scandal, the turkey day conversation may have just been politically charged, but now the story has taken a bizarre turn.

I urge you now to resist pointing fingers at Facebook on Thursday. It’s time that everyone in the digital advertising industry took a look in the mirror. Our relatives may be misinformed because of Facebook, but it’s our fault. Not only because of the bad-quality news, but because of the advertising that funds it.

For anyone interested in creating a more fact-driven political future, we all have the power to make a huge impact with a few changes to the way we do business. Among the first creators of fake news to be discovered was a group of teenagers operating from the Balkans. They had no political agenda and were singularly focused on earning money from advertising.

Two problems with the digital advertising industry are the direct result of media-buying tactics. As advertisers have focused more on audience and less on content, the industry has produced a cesspool of harmful information.

The first change that media buyers must make is to create a whitelist and stick to it. I visited a few fake news sites this week to check them out and was targeted by several relevant ads for home décor and sports clothes. Right person, wrong place. The content next to these ads was ridiculous propaganda about North Korea and US political candidates. I am sure the advertisers targeting me would be horrified to learn this.

Whitelists work the best to counteract the issues caused by too tight of a focus on audience and too lax of a focus on content. The ads I saw in my research were being served by a programmatic middleman I’ve never heard of, with the fake news sites I visited lurking in its network. Whitelists must be adhered to throughout a campaign, even if delivery and pacing are behind. And having a network or reseller on a whitelist is a recipe for disaster.

Blacklists are much worse than whitelists. They allow any new site that isn’t on the blacklist to be included in the media plan. Of course, with either a whitelist or a blacklist, Twitter, Facebook and Google likely don’t even factor in. For these large platforms, contextual restrictions need to be asked for and enforced as much as possible.

The second change we must make is that brands must remember that there is a finite number of people on Earth. Media buyers would much rather get high volume at low prices than limit their media buy to an accurate number of real people at higher CPM. Rather than accept the normal rules of an economy with scarcity, media buyers have fooled themselves into buying audiences at high frequencies on low-quality media. Context and frequency caps go out the window as soon as a media buyer sees that a campaign might not deliver in time. This encourages media spending on click-bait content that is forwarded and viewed at high volume, but of very low value. If brands were to stick to frequency caps with their advertising, they would be less likely to fund low-quality content that simply exists to game the system.

Once we make these two changes, the digital advertising industry would clean up quickly. Prices for premium inventory would rise, due to the increased scarcity of acceptable inventory. For vendors and publishers, this is the most important point. Technology and media companies are desperate for advertiser revenue, and so they spend immense effort to hide the truth from advertisers and take very low prices as a result.

Vendors and publishers that break out of this negative cycle should be very clear with advertisers why they are taking the high road, being transparent about where ads are running and why prices are higher. I am betting that now is the best time for publishers with premium content and tech companies with a modicum of integrity to break the cycle.

We can all sign petitions on Facebook to improve things, or we can actually make changes tomorrow that will make a much bigger difference.

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