Techniques for Combating Digital Ad Fraud, Transparency, and Viewability

May 16, 2017


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If you thought that Russian meddling ended with the election, you’d be mistaken. While many marketing industry observers accurately described 2016 as “the year when ad fraud came out of the shadows,” the year ended with a unceremonious thud when a company called White Ops launched a study claiming that a sophisticated Russian bot operation—dubbed Methbot—is ringing up as much as $5 million per day in fraudulent online advertising. Add to the conversation developments involving shady video metrics from Facebook and Google’s YouTube, and their agreement to be audited isn’t surprising. If industry outrage isn’t enough to accelerate the cleanup of digital advertising, an ultimatum from one of the world’s largest advertisers should: Procter & Gamble has given agencies and publishers 1 year to develop “a transparent, clean and productive media supply chain.”

For marketers, this kind of high-profile attention from business press outlets is both good news and bad. Bad because it forces us to answer questions from CEOs and CFOs about wasted ad spending, and good because this is exactly the kind of discussion required to enact real change.

In the meantime, though, we can safely assume that anywhere between 5% and 50% of our digital advertising dollars is either being wasted or underused because of this “unproductive” media supply chain. With more of our budgets being moved from TV, print, and radio to digital, it creates an obvious challenge. Here are some techniques for minimizing the impact.

Be skeptical of the role of packaged solutions. The digital advertising industry is now more than 10 years old and entering an adolescent phase. Thousands of companies have rushed to capture a slice of the burgeoning marketplace, with slick and persuasive sales pitches. Nowhere is this more evident than in the yearly, busting-at-the-seams Marketing Technology Landscape Supergraphic by Scott Brinker. There’s a tool available for every imaginable digital marketing challenge—including fraud management—but navigating options can be an exercise in futility. Don’t assume the purchase of shiny, new software will put a dent in the incidents of fraud in the operation—most requires a skilled operator to make it work.

Become a subject matter expert—or add one (or more) to your staff. An argument can be made that every senior marketing professional needs to evolve into a digital marketing expert in short order, given how most marketing operations have become digital-centric or will be soon. But this expertise takes years to accumulate, so marketing executives need to surround themselves with digital specialists who understand how the ecosystem works. Few marketing operations are best-in-class in every aspect of the value chain—creative, media buying, technology, and optimization—but effective teams understand how to make the necessary tweaks to cover up deficiencies. For example, shrewd media buying can compensate for weak creative and vice versa.

Contextualize the discussion. Digital media continues to be the superior marketing channel—warts and all—because of its precision, accountability, and flexibility. In most situations, it continues to deliver superior ROI in relation to other channels and activities. However, working this reality into a conversation with senior, non-marketing executives can be tricky. After all, no one likes to hear that their budgets are being knowingly wasted. A two-pronged approach to managing the issue can help: 1) Be prepared to discuss the efforts being taken to minimize the impact of fraud, and 2) develop ROI reporting methods to facilitate comparison between digital (fraud and all) and other activities.