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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Publishers walk a revenue/ad quality tightrope – but there’s hope

April 21, 2020 | By Amnon Siev, CEO – GeoEdge @GeoEdgePro

The global Covid-19 health crisis is disrupting the global economy as we speak. And whether the economic forecasts happen to be optimistic or not, the business world has acknowledged this is our reality for the foreseeable future.

The ramifications for the advertising industry are clear. And indeed, they’ve been widely reported and analyzed. Much has been made of advertisers’ concerns over brand safety – their qualms over their ads appearing next to news about a subject that might be deemed negative.

However, there is also a more subtle, yet crucial safety issue at play – that of the end user, and to publishers. Users have become exposed in new and dramatic ways to security threats brought on by bad actors exploiting this shocking disruption to the digital ad ecosystem. And the steadily growing appearance of unsafe, malicious, misleading, fake and inappropriate ads poses reputational and financial risks to even premium publishers.

Ad spend plummets

Publishers at this moment are doing their best to weather a perfect storm. Any major crisis heightens the public’s appetite for media. And yet, ad spending is down considerably. Eighty percent of brands plan to reduce spend through 2020, and 70% of buy-side companies have already changed their spending plans.

Digital ad spend right now is down by a full third from 2019. Brand safety is a two-way street, of course. Thus, publishers similarly are wary of running ads related to Covid-19. This might include protective masks, gloves, and other products or topics that could further unsettle their users.

All of these factors lead to more available premium inventory, and to CPMs experiencing a free fall. The door is wide open for bad actors to take advantage of plentiful, lower-priced inventory, so they can deploy malware, launch phishing attacks, and spread misinformation or undisclosed partisan messages.

The malvertising threat

These attacks on premium inventory and valuable, engaged users are not mere pranks. Malvertising and phishing campaigns are conscious, orchestrated attacks, undertaken by hard-to-find international bad actors whose business plans are built on cybercriminal activity.

Fraudulent and dishonest entities follow a similar business scheme: lower CPMs, lower customer acquisition costs, more chances to lure users to sites full of scammy products, biased content, or unreliable information about the COVID crisis or our political realities. Those entities also benefit from misleading and luring users. Publishers’ revenue crisis has quickly become an ad security and quality crisis.

The trouble with low CPMs

People in the digital ad industry generally understand that lower CPMs attract more scammers and hackers than higher CPMs. We’ve been monitoring header CPMs, security issues, and suspicious health-related ads (that is, health ads of dubious quality and reliability) on the GeoEdge platform since late 2019. So, we can see the actual risk publishers and their audiences experience during a true global crisis.

Declining header CPMs and ascending security risks correlate uncannily with the ongoing Covid-19 story. Toward the end of January, security issues and the volume of questionable health-related ads were at their lowest for 2020 so far. Publisher header CPMs were around normal average rates.

But on Jan. 30, the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency and header CPMs began to drop immediately. By Feb. 11, the share of questionable health ads (about 0.15% by that date). And the portion of ads containing security risks (around 0.275%) had both roughly doubled from Jan. 27.

Header CPMs continued to decline steadily. By Feb. 25, a few days after cities in Italy began shutting down to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the share of quality-risk health ads had returned to its level circa Jan. 1, but security risks reached their highest peak of 2020 so far. At that point, 0.5% of ads had security issues. That’s an 85% growth in security risks since the beginning of the year. And yet, header CPMs remained in freefall, dropping a remarkable 30-50% (versus average rates) over the same amount of time.

Security risks were detected on around 0.355% of ads, and quality risks in the health category were spotted in around 0.23%. In short, overall, ad security and quality issues have trended up throughout Covid’s spread, and CPMs have trended down.

This is a hard reality for publishers, especially premium publishers, as they devote valuable resources and energy to telling the public health story, clearly and honestly, to highly engaged audiences. Publishers deserve to monetize their great content, their traffic, and their engagement.

Ad quality and security

However, they must also devote resources and energy to maintaining ad quality and security. The stakes are high. And publishers owe it to their audiences to protect users’ ads that contradict the standards those publishers set for their own content.

In the face of legitimate, trustworthy ad buyers’ apprehension of spending at this time, publishers face real financial risks by blocking entire categories of ads by keyword. This is especially true when a certain category may also include good ads that are highly relevant to audiences. Health ads are a great example. Even if that category is a particular source of quality issues, publishers simply may not be able to afford turning off all health ads and doing so may not actually serve their audiences well. 

In a moment like this, publishers must make every ad dollar go the distance. They also must honor the commitment they and their audiences have toward each other. This necessitates robust ad quality assurance. Keyword blocking is not sufficient.

The role of automation in ad security and QA may be more crucial now than it ever has. Bad actors have rarely seen the odds so much in their favor. So, publishers need to protect all of their inventory, and in real time, identifying and blocking threats as they arise and before they can disrupt users. Indeed, when misleading or unsafe ads reach the publisher’s page, the publisher risks losing the goodwill and trust of their users, over the user’s lifetime.

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