While digital advertising revenues are growing, developments in the marketplace pose some new challenges and opportunities. Near the top of the list of concerns of digital publishers today is minimizing fraudulent and nonhuman traffic. Although the two are far from synonymous, both result in unseen ads, brand safety concerns and false audience numbers that undermine the trust and confidence of advertisers.
Publishers can and must do something about this, as it is a scourge affecting all aspects of digital media, from desktop to mobile. But before I offer a few insights and advice for publishers, let’s consider the bigger picture.
The advertising industry is rallying around two recent initiatives: The Association of National Advertisers (ANA) is supporting “The Marketers’ Coalition,” a pilot program aimed at understanding the extent of ad impression fraud across campaigns from more than 30 major advertisers; and the Media Rating Council (MRC) is initiating a project (to which AAM is contributing digital expertise) to modernize and strengthen industry standards around nonhuman traffic (NHT) and invalid traffic (IVT) controls. Both of these are hugely important because:
- Advertisers are taking serious steps to clean up a marketplace sullied by some bad actors, and
- Industry standard-setting bodies are looking to improve and strengthen self-regulatory guidelines that have already helped the digital media space be as viable as it is.
In this context, publishers can improve their digital ad operations by bringing more focus to efforts around brand safety, ad viewability and all the aspects of fighting against ad fraud and nonhuman traffic. One of the problems our industry faces is that even “innocent cooperators” make money from the fraud. As such, unknowing publishers are profiting from fraud and nonhuman traffic, and many may be unwilling to ask questions or perform introspection because of the fear of impacting the bottom line.
The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), MRC, ANA, 4As, OPA, BPA, AAM and other bodies are doing fine, admirable work to help improve supply chain quality, minimize fraud and improve ad viewability standards and practices. But some have referred to the fight as akin to playing whack-a-mole – eliminate fraud in one area and it quickly pops up in another.
No one expects that the industry will ever eliminate fraud outright. But that is not to say that nothing can be done. There are several ways, I believe, the industry can address the problem. This includes instituting a number of standard controls (business/operational/financial) that will deter or detect fraudsters:
- Publishers must vet all traffic sources to ensure high quality, particularly those sources that are compensated.
- Publishers must employ internal controls to prevent (or monitor) employees from rewards for traffic increases.
- Include the right to audit in agreements with traffic providers.
- Become certified against the IAB’s Quality Assurance Guidelines, which offer a framework for industry adherence to practices that promote brand safety and trust.
- Implement advertising technology solutions that have been certified to IAB or MRC measurement standards.
- Advertisers/agencies/networks/SSPs must vet all business partners (publishers) before agreeing to do business with them. Insist that the ad platforms your agencies, publishers and networks use have been certified to IAB or MRC measurement standards.
- Advertisers/agencies/networks/SSPs can monitor business partners for unreasonable increases, poor performing campaigns, or erratic traffic fluctuations. Discrepancies can then be investigated.
- Get rid of the bad actors (bad traffic sources and publishers who cheat).
- Special consideration/monitoring should be in place for ad networks, RTB and other players that do not have a direct relationship with the publisher/advertiser.
- Include the right to audit in agreements with inventory providers.
- Technology companies should be certified to industry best practices to ensure that adequate systems and internal controls are in place. This includes, but is not limited to, the IAB Measurement Guidelines and the IAB Quality Assurance Guidelines (QAG).
- Technology companies can employ technical and statistical tools that can assist in uncovering fraudulent users and traffic sources.
- Follow the money – identify baseline metrics and compare how much companies are being paid over time in comparison to other metrics.
There are numerous vendors that offer some form of fraud detection or prevention services today. That’s a good thing. But this market segment is still in its infancy and we have a long way to go to before bad behavior is truly contained and minimized.
Our company, the Alliance for Audited Media (AAM), has worked with well-known organizations in each of the above market segments as they’ve taken a leadership stance to ensure accountability, transparency and trust. More companies need to follow this lead by being independently certified against industry quality standards. Independent certification can go a long way to deliver on your inherent promise to advertisers – that you are doing everything you can to protect their best interests and are helping to keep the digital ad space safer than ever.
Tom Drouillard is CEO, president and managing director of the Alliance for Audited Media, a nonprofit industry body that provides essential cross-media verification and information services for North America’s leading media companies, advertisers and ad agencies. In 2014 AAM merged with ImServices Group, one of the world’s most experienced providers of technology certification audits to industry standards established by the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Media Rating Council and Mobile Marketing Association.