Almost every digital media publication talks about how much money the advertisers and the industry lose to bot fraud. Everyone knows that marketers/advertisers only want to pay for viewable impressions (vCPM).
Let’s talk about the publishers for a change.
Media sellers (aka publishers) are already losing massive chunks of revenue from ad blocking, both on desktop and mobile.
Then they are supposed to be held accountable for, just, all of the fraud and pay for “cleaning up the mess” (like in this impassioned post).
Even though the publishers who sold premium inventory on private ad exchanges to brand-consistent advertisers have also been victimized by fraud…
Ten per cent of ad impressions from premium programmatic ad campaigns are fraudulent (triggered by bots). The surprise was the ubiquity of the fraud. It is not just no-name websites; it also affects premium publishers.
— Bill Duggan, VP of Association of National Advertisers (Source)
Meanwhile, growing emphasis on viewable impressions could open the doors to further trouble…
(Often) Viewability as quality produces its opposite: viewability as clutter. There are threads of connection between the rise of ad blockers and the rise of viewability as a targeting paradigm.
— Ezra Pierce, CEO, Avocet
All three (viewability, fraud, and ad blocking) are unquestionably interrelated:
- Various pure-play industry leaders like Integral Ad Science, WhiteOps, Forensiq, etc. use viewability as one of the first parameters to detect and eliminate the less-sophisticated forms of bot and inventory fraud. (Source)
- The race to achieve hundred percent viewable impressions damages UX, ultimately driving more people to use ad blocks. (Source)
- As revenues take a nosedive, publishers resort to using cheap third party audience platforms (click farms, bot traffic, etc.) to compensate.
The result? Publisher loses a huge chunk of inventory to ad blocks and loses advertiser trust (through fraud). Advertisers lose their money.
End users inadvertently put their favorite websites out of business. No one wins, except ad blocks and perpetrators of fraud.
This is how publishers can do their part in dealing with this triple threat:
1. Ad Blocking
Our long time readers know our stance on ad blocking.
While publishers may go overboard and make ads obtrusive, ad blocking hurts revenue streams and livelihoods of those that work to provide free content to their audience. In a perverse way, ad blocking hurts the free-internet itself.
Do people not understand what they’re doing? Well…
While fraudsters are undeniably criminal and viewability is in the midst of getting itself sorted out through industrywide standards, ad blocking remains unique in that crowd because ad blocking is a choice that’s being made by the end user. Profiteering software and hardware developers might be the ones creating the tools that enable blocking, but consumers, the regular people, are the ones opting to turn them on.
— Allison Schiff, AdExchanger
If you’re wondering about the ethics (just to assign a bad guy to this narrative), know that ad blocking is deemed perfectly legal—there are no “unspoken contracts” that make publishers entitled to have their ads viewed. Users are simply choosing to save bandwidth and CPU from being wasted on messages they are not interested in; much like blocking email spam or changing a TV channel.
So what can be done to reduce the impact of ad blocked inventory on your revenue? PubNation found in a study that most top publishers admitted defeat and “paid the piper” to get their ads across:
Then there were “the innovators”: Publishers like Washington Post, The Atlantic, and The Guardian, who found a way around ad block. These sites began showing alternative content that implored users to support their work.
Reuters aimed for universal whitelisting through Acceptable Ads…
…while RetailMeNot had a different way of monetization (referral deals) and sailed right over the ad block issue.
Sites like Brainpickings.org politely ask for donations. Wall Street Journal experimented with limited preview of content followed by a paid-subscription form.
ARS Technica (WIRED Media Group) did a 12-hour experiment where they straight up banished ad block users from accessing their content; Editor-in-Chief Ken Fisher shared the whole story, good and bad, in a blog post.
Yet others have experimented with “limited free pageviews” and ad block detection-redirection method.
You can use UX-friendly tactics (LEAN and Acceptable Ads programs), ask users to whitelist you once you have explained the impact ad blocking has on your operations.
Internet users didn’t just wake up one day and declare in unison, “Down with online ads!” It’s a consensus that built slowly and steadily as ads kept getting slower, tackier, and more bloated over the years. — Vishveshwar Jatain, What Bloggers and Publishers can do to Fight Ad Blocking
But there is hope: According to a study by IAB/Yougov, more than half the users would disable ad blockers to access content. That alone says a lot about audience loyalty and their growing awareness of inner workings of digital publishing.
If users are willing to see some ads to keep your publication afloat, you can do your part by respecting their time, screen-space, and resources.
We have talked about viewability as a transactional metric before. In short: Agencies and brand advertisers are buying and paying for a hundred thousand impressions, not hundred thousand ad calls.
Viewable buying is both an imperative and the logical future of digital advertising. It benefits all market participants.
— Josh Zeitz, VP of Corporate Communications at AppNexus.
Viewability is complicated: There are different viewability standards (with several vendors introducing their own). Then there are ad formats (display vs text vs video vs native). Performance-based (direct response) advertisers, usually buying cheaper non-viewable inventory programmatically, still control a majority of ad spend, keeping viewability at a low simmer.
Attribution has historically not been done with a mind to viewability, and with the rise of viewability, non-viewable inventory has gotten cheaper, so direct-response platforms are buying non-viewable inventory to get credit for conversions that are not necessarily there.
— Jonah Goodhart, CEO, Moat
Factor in the fraud (from ad stacking and pixel stuffing) and more sophisticated forms of bots (ones that mimic human browsing behavior including scroll depth and active-time-on-site) and you’re right back at square one—is the impression being seen by a person at all? And if it is, why should you care for it when the majority of advertisers still lean towards direct-response?
Because advertisers see viewability as one way to eliminate fraud. Brand-advertisers know the importance of being seen and are willing to pay higher prices for premium viewable impressions (source).
Measurement is getting standardized and technology is getting more sophisticated across the board for reduced discrepancies in viewability data—for sell side as well as buy side.
Once you’ve overcome the first barrier (measuring viewability by implementing solutions like Active View), some ways to optimize your impressions for viewability will include:
- Reducing ad latency: On all devices! Make sure your ads render before visitors scroll away from the screen or exit the site. Implement smart loading, asynchronous tags, and network optimization.
- Improving ad layouts and placements: Vertical ad units, for instance, are in view for longer durations.
- Continuous testing: You place banner ads above-the-fold? Users will learn to scroll past in less than a second. Keep testing ad layouts to stay one step ahead of banner blindness.
- Engaging content: Ads placed next to content that engages visitors always fares well in terms of viewability. Make it worth the users’ time while by publishing content that keeps them hooked.
The market rewards quality. You can monetize your viewable impressions through CPM bids, but better quality content (and less low-quality traffic) will make advertisers come to you for direct buys.
3. Ad Fraud
No one quite knows where it begins, ends, or what forms it takes. Yes, ad fraud is a lot like a Stephen King villain.
The impact of ad fraud is pervasive and variable. According to estimates in Bot Baseline Study, published early this year by ANA and White Ops, the advertising industry lost $7.2 billion dollars to bot-fraud in 2016. Other findings report:
- High-CPM ($10 and higher) had a 39 percent higher bot rate than lower-valued inventory.
- Programmatic video had 73 percent more bots than study average
- More focused targeting leads to increased fraud as bots fill in to supply impressions targeted to a small audience segment.
The study also gave sell-side (publishers, platforms, and ad exchanges) some recommendations on doing their bit in fighting ad fraud.
- Monitoring ‘sourced’ traffic: To create trust in your inventory, start with knowing your audience. Clean up your act and maintain transparency about traffic sources. Blacklist sources that are known to have high bot percentage.
- Protect yourself from content theft and ad injections: Use bot and domain detection services. Monitor content from plagiarism.
- Allow third-party traffic assessment tools: Integrate viewability, engagement, and bot detection methods to provide discrepancy-free data to demand partners and advertisers.
- Focus on direct selling: Direct buys (of any media) were found to have lower fraud rates.
Once you can demonstrate higher value from higher valid impression percentages, the value of your media will increase.
Fighting ad fraud may sound counter-productive to you right now (it’s low-risk, high-reward, right?). But the industry is not sitting quietly by while billions of dollars are lost in ad spend. Cross-industry accountability initiative TAG (Trustworthy Accountability Group) is already making the move towards eliminating fraud from the entire digital ad supply chain with certification seals.
Who do you think advertisers would want to buy media from then?