Ozy Media’s Downfall Is An Object Lesson In The Ubiquity Of Fake Traffic – And Marketers Finally Need To Learn

What can marketers do to avoid being duped by disreputable publishers, and what can marketers learn from Ozy’s collapse?

The Ozy Media scandal is a flameout for the ages, complete with wildly inflated audience numbers and an FBI probe over the alleged impersonation of a YouTube executive on a due diligence call with Goldman Sachs.

But securities fraud isn’t the only fraud Ozy has been accused of.

In late 2017, Craig Silverman of BuzzFeed blew the whistle on how Ozy bought large amounts of cheap junk traffic to boost visitors for sponsored content paid for by a who’s-who of blue chip advertisers, including JPMorgan Chase, Visa, KFC and Amazon.

On the surface, these sponsored stories appeared to be some of Ozy’s most popular content between May and October of that year, based on data from Similarweb cited by BuzzFeed.

But all the classic signs of invalid traffic were on display: stacked ads, pop-unders, off-page ads, pixel stuffing and ad-slot refreshing.

Yet marketers apparently took little notice – or perhaps willfully turned a blind eye.

We asked the experts: What can marketers do to avoid being duped by disreputable publishers, and what can marketers learn from Ozy’s collapse?

  • Augustine Fou, independent ad fraud researcher
  • Marc Goldberg, CRO, Method Media Intelligence
  • Kathleen Booth, CMO, clean.io
  • Josh Schmiesing, CMO, Tubular Labs

Augustine Fou, independent ad fraud researcher

Ozy was total amateur hour with respect to ad fraud and juicing their numbers. It’s hilarious to see everyone jumping on this week’s bandwagon kicking Ozy when it’s down – and agencies distancing themselves from Ozy – when Craig Silverman reported on Ozy back in 2017 and no one listened.

Literally every other media company buying traffic is doing the same thing, because bought traffic is bot traffic. Some even boast that all of their traffic is paid for through Taboola and Outbrain, etcetera. Marketers need to have detailed analytics to see where their ads ran and whether those sites are doing the same shenanigans as Ozy.

If all you get is a number from a verification company’s report, like the percentage of invalid traffic, for example, you can’t troubleshoot anything with that. But if you have a list of sites and apps that are cheating, you can add them to blocklists or remove them from your inclusion lists.

Marc Goldberg, CRO, Method Media Intelligence

The Ozy story continues to emphasize the gravity of verification for all media buys. Knowing your rep or meeting the CEO is not an adequate substitute for verifying your ad dollars.

At best, some publishers are ignorant of the issues as they continue to buy traffic to meet an advertiser’s request. At worst, some publishers are malicious and their bottom line is to take your ad dollars.

If you are a publisher, stop buying traffic sub penny per click. If you are a marketer, start asking questions about traffic acquisition. If you are an investor, do your diligence on acquisitions and growth plans.

Kathleen Booth, CMO, clean.io

What happened with Ozy Media is the perfect illustration of the difference between “spread metrics” and “relationship metrics.”

The most successful media companies recognize the importance of delivering world-class user experiences and building relationships with their audiences. Those relationships are best measured by metrics, such as the size of their opt-in subscriber databases, the number of returning versus new visitors to their site, website churn rate, visitor session length, social engagement and the like.

Relationship metrics are hard to fake. By contrast, spread metrics, such as the number of Facebook page likes or overall site traffic – both of which were bought and paid for by Ozy – don’t necessarily equate to meaningful outcomes for marketers, and are much easier to fake or purchase.

As marketers, it’s incumbent upon us to ask for the right data up front and then to evaluate the results we’re getting from our ad spend, not just by the number of views or clicks we get but by outcomes – think conversions, purchases or subscriptions – that have a real impact on our businesses.

Josh Schmiesing, CMO, Tubular Labs

Ozy had a lot of the right elements to be a major cross-media platform company and they did see some success in social video, generally speaking. However, a look at their engagement rates, from comments to watch time to the velocity of viewing on social video should have been red flags to buyers evaluating their audience claims.

The entire saga underlines the need for broad adoption of independently measured standards for audience reach and engagement that will help establish more trust and unlock the real potential of the marketplace.

Answers have been edited and condensed.

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1 Comment

  1. There is nothing more pathetic than professionals suddenly “discovering” something! Audience and circulation fraud has always been among us.

    1. When television ratings were measured by diaries… stations with a strong top of mind always wound up #1 in the ratings.
    2. Unaudited magazines (e.g., those ubiquitous “service” magazines that are only a collection of local ads) have always had inflated figures.
    3. Unaudited community newspapers have always had wildly inflated figures… and you can see them piled up in halls, lobbies and offices slowly rotting away
    4. Out of home is “measured” –if you can call that– in a totally unrealistic way: people passing by
    5. Digital out of home? Seriously… I’m dying. The companies that commercialize the little screens in your gas pumps actually count everyone as an impression… whether you watch or not (which, on the other hand, how would they know? Right?)
    6. The IAB’s viewability standard is even more ludicrous: The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) defines a viewable impression as an ad that meets the following criteria: For ads, 50% of the ad’s pixels are visible in the browser window for a continuous 1 second. For larger ads (those greater than 242,000 pixels), 30% of the ad’s pixels are visible in the browser window.

    And people are tying their knickers in a know about Ozy? It’s just a blip in the wide wide world of ad fraud.