In The Wild West Of Digital Advertising, Marketers Must Rein In The Anarchy

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

Today’s column is by Scott Tomlin, CEO at Trust Metrics.

From Amazon to Uber, the Internet does a great job upending business models. In the publishing world, mommy blogs can compete for ad dollars with the likes of Condé Nast, and a Candy Crush app can make as much money or more as one from CNN.

For someone getting into digital content creation, the Internet can seem like a place where anyone can achieve the American dream, as long as you know how to place high in the Google search rankings.

It’s different for advertisers. When advertisers try to make a media plan for brand lift or product sales, they’re not looking at the nearly infinite choice of content placements with the excitement of joining the next Oklahoma land rush. Many feel the fear of a family that just landed in the middle of the Wild West.

That’s because we’re not in a period of democracy, where everyone is represented equally. It’s a period of sustained anarchy, where there are no rules and no one gets a fair deal. Since the digital market lacks standard controls compared to traditional channels, such as TV and print, advertisers are left to navigate on their own. The many solutions that advertisers purchase to control for bots, nonviewable ads and ad blocking are akin to hiring a vigilante squad.

As in the real Wild West, avoiding anarchy is complicated. If marketers choose to advertise on digital, they’re subject to all of its problems. Avoiding fraud and other issues is more complicated than sticking to the comScore 200. Big premium publishers have had to contend with more and more competition, and they haven’t always used the best practices to stay afloat. Advertisers who might previously have bought only top-tier inventory may now find that their viewability or fraud issues are just as bad as advertisers who buy across the web’s long tail.

Like a sheriff coming in to clean up the town, advertisers must establish firm rules to protect their brand and maximize their media spend. The best place to start is with the fundamentals that have made other channels successful for many years.

Get Real About Scale

Last year Google reported that 56% of impressions went unseen. That means that a lot of publishers allowed fraud on their sites. It also means that a lot of advertisers were duped into thinking they could reach double the audience without confirming that reach with fail-safe measurements.

Impressions may seem infinite online, but humans are not. If reaching actual humans is the goal, then advertisers need to focus on viewable frequency. Like any other marketing channel that is ruled by total audience reach, digital advertising must use more realistic audience metrics.

Be Exclusive, Not Inclusive

You wouldn’t tell a visitor how not to get to your house. The same is true with media buying.

On TV, a high-end brand would never allow their ads to air during Jerry Springer, yet online some of those same brands are routinely spotted on low-quality websites. While some media buyers use blacklists, they simply tell your media-buying team what not to do. Such massive choice leaves the door open for new bad actors to slip into the mix.

Rather than tell their agency what not to buy, marketers should direct them to the right places, even if this limits their scale. Many perfectly good publishers have enough bad placements that advertisers are better off putting their foot down and taking them off the plan entirely if they can’t be guaranteed a quality placement.

Read Publisher Signals

Bad publishers throw off lots of signals, such as pages with many ads and little content, or extremely low engagement times. Some signals indicate fraud, while others are simply quality controls to protect a brand.

Marketers should create a list of the signs of a bad publisher and see how many boxes each publisher checks. Sites with poor layout and design and content that’s not consistent with your brand message are signals that your brand doesn’t belong.

If they aren’t updating content frequently, or if they’re represented by shady advertising middlemen, the chances of fraud go up.

Ultimately, the advertiser is responsible for ensuring that its dollars are spent wisely.

The best way to clean up web anarchy is to stop paying for it.

Follow Trust Metrics (@trust_metrics) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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  1. Great article. Lots of common sense here, to be honest, but it’s constantly surprising how badly this industry fails at stopping any of this fraud. A few basic checks and being smarter about the money would go a long way towards solving a lot of the problems.

  2. Scott: “Last year Google reported that 56% of impressions went unseen. That means that a lot of publishers allowed fraud on their sites.” You’ve now fallen victim to the same sensationalism that misleads our industry. 56% of ads going unseen means they simply weren’t viewable. That doesn’t mean it was fraud. That means it was bad site design (most of the time, true fraud some of the time) and users didn’t scroll to the place where the ad was displayed for long enough. This is worthy of a correction to be more credible.

  3. Jay, thanks for pointing this out, I can see where this may be interpreted from my comments . I am definitely not saying that unseen impressions are always fraud. However, if publishers are representing impressions as viewable but are actually not, this could be fraud. This lack of transparency into the “what” is being bought starts to feel like fraud. I agree with you that as an industry we need to be careful with our terminology, especially with words like “fraud”. Viewability has often been lumped into fraud, right or wrong. As an industry, I feel we have indexed heavily on the IAB standard for viewability, so much so that behaviors of publishers have been to cram more ads above the fold and sacrifice SOV. Is that fraud? Maybe, but having 10 ads above the fold with 51% of the pixels in view for 1 second is definitely not what the advertisers think they are buying. I want to call on advertisers to be critical where they are buying ads for many reasons, viewability being simply one, in the programmatic space this requires some extra diligence. I would also call on publishers not to fall victim to “gaming” tactics around these measurements.