The internet has been around for almost three decades. It’s the invention of the millennium, and to be able to reach audiences across the globe at a fraction of the price is every marketer’s dream come true. Here’s the rub, though: They are not reaching real people. Marketers are battling with an unseen monster in the form of machine-generated clicks, bots and fake people.
We have all heard these terms, right? Marketers are not oblivious to this problem. They know it’s happening and even accept it. Why do businesses need to accept the loss of marketing dollars on such nonsense? We all need to realize these digital platforms are taking our marketing dollars.
The Proof Is In The Pudding
In 2013, ComScore reported that 46% of online ads go unseen. In February 2014, Spider.io, an ad fraud company, noted that a vast swath of ads are viewed only by robots. That same year, MIT’s Technology Review published an article explaining that the problem stems from advertisers believing that their money is spent on customers seeing their ads. Instead, a third of the views are not from human viewer traffic.
In a more recent study in 2018-2019, ad verification company Cheq concluded (via Marketing Dive), “Among fraudulent U.S. ad traffic, 77% is classified as ‘sophisticated invalid traffic,’ or SIVT, meaning it uses advanced malicious methods.”
Accountability at every level has exited the marketing realm. So how did this all happen? There are a lot of key players here. For a small fee, third-party audience brokers offer publishers guaranteed impressions. Publishers are more than happy to oblige, especially when more views, clicks and eyeballs mean more revenue. These publishers then can prove to their media agencies — and ultimately, the end client — that their ads were effectively placed and the money was all worth it.
The Bots Have Landed
The goal of unscrupulous audience brokers all boils down to revenue. And revenue is only generated with an increased rates of clicks, impressions and likes. They will engage in ways to drive click costs or fabricate impressions to reap the benefits of viewed digital ads.
Clickjacking, for example, gives a false measure of digital ad effectiveness. As a SEMrush blog post notes, it “involves hidden software on an unwitting user’s computer and sends them to websites they never planned to visit.” Clickjacking is often committed by bots and can act as real users clicking on digital ads multiple times. Bots can also load pages over and over, making it look like the ad was viewed by hundreds of users. Click fraud can also be human-generated in the form of click farms.
Fraudsters can also disguise “the URL of where an ad will eventually be served,” so placement quality and relevance do not matter. How much does it matter to you that the correct audience is reached? Marketing dollars are wasted if your target site or audience is not reachable.
Ads can be stacked onto one another or put into tiny invisible pixels at unnoticeable areas on a page to covertly earn impressions. This is called pixel stuffing. Have you ever seen these? Probably not, but your marketing dollars are used for those impressions.
The ANA and White Ops concluded in a 2016 study that fraudulent practices and bot usage have continued to remain level. Though ad spending has risen with awareness, company action has not. Companies spending their dollars on digital ads should take more control and demand ethical practices and higher-quality traffic.
The Time For Change Is Upon Us
There’s a wealth of advice for combatting fraud. But the most important advice I can give is to use a multidimensional approach and be an outright vocal advocate and participant of change. It will not get better unless we all understand that we are knowingly taking a hit to our bottom-line revenues.
The ANA/White Ops study also has some great takeaways that I feel need to be reiterated here:
• Demand transparency. You should make it a point to know every player. As the report suggests, “Buyers should request transparency from publishers around traffic sourcing and build language into RFPs and insertion orders that require publishers to identify all third-party sources of traffic.”
• Use a consistent third-party monitoring tool. Consistent third-part monitoring tools are an imperative for ensuring that advertising dollars being utilized properly.
• Be an outright vocal advocate and participant for change so your partners know your stance on fraud, and enforce it with strict penalties. Make sure that your antifraud policies are clear and respected by all parties. And as the report notes, “Every company across the ecosystem should register with TAG (the Trustworthy Accountability Group) to ensure they are doing business with trusted partners.”
And finally, one more thing to consider is to find a way to identify and verify legitimate human profiles, legitimate businesses and real devices. If you are using popular social media platforms for ads, make sure that the platform participates and uses verified human identities for your ads. Demand in-depth metrics, which include 100% verified identities in results. That way you know for a fact that the like, impression or view was initiated by an actual person.
If you are reaching out to businesses, the same rules apply. Have your media agency provide verified businesses that are legitimate and not shell companies or figments of a bot’s imagination. Verification of identity is a key player in trust, especially in our digital world.