We take ads for granted. Do a search; see an ad. Run a campaign; see clicks and sales. Sure, perhaps your campaigns don’t perform in quite the way you were expecting, but that’s not so alarming, right? You figure, you’ll just adjust. Tweak. Measure. Analyze more carefully. Break through marketing plateaus with careful attention to detail and expert integration. In fact, it’s probably never even crossed your mind that the constant bleed of ad spend and failed ROI might be a matter of fraud and failed brand safety.
Sadly, though, poor and pirated ads account for a trickle or flood of lost advertising dollars in advertising campaigns of all stripes. More and more ads are seen only by bots; others are run alongside hate speech or graphic materials; still others appear on fake sites populated solely by robot viewers.
No one needs to tell you that ads which have been faked, spoofed, redirected or otherwise hijacked aren’t worth the binary code in which they’re written. A fact that gets even more alarming when we consider that, according to some estimates, ad fraud numbers are up over 800 percent and brand safety violations–the tendency of an ad to appear in a context that casts the brand in a negative light–rose 25 percent last year.
It’s safe to say, that if 2017 saw a mixed review for its PPC developments relating to advertising, 2018 remains mired in serious concern about ad fraud–and hence, ad viability.
Awareness of the problem is the first step toward fixing it, so online advertisers need to remain vigilant and mindful. They need to speak out about fraud, risks and concerns, to help businesses and consumers understand that nefarious people target ads on mobile devices (and others). But more than anything, advertisers must understand what’s causing these brand safety violations on mobile, so we can start to work against them.
Here’s what we’re seeing, and what we can do about it.
Ad Fraud Numbers Continue to Rise
Both publishers and advertisers have drawn sharp breaths at the numbers coming out in recent years. “An estimated $7.4 billion (£5.5 billion) was wasted on display ads alone in 2016,” says Digiday, “a figure that will rise to $10.9 billion (£8 billion) by 2021. Other reports put it even higher.”
This fraud takes many farms, from domain spoofing and click farms to giant fraud machines constructed to skim ad dollars from the many layers of online PPC advertising. Of special concern to brand safety is ad misplacement, continues Digiday, “a case of marketers wasting budget on ads that appear next to content unsuitable for their (or any) brand, like hate speech, or terrorist content, or against fake news.”
That such numbers exist in the first place is frightening. That they are still going up is even more alarming, because it means advertisers, publishers and brokers are equally at a loss for what to do about it. As of right now, not enough is getting done to stop or prevent a major, serious and potentially bankrupting issue.
The problem is particularly acute on mobile. As always with newer technologies, greater vulnerabilities exist in the mobile sphere than in the desktop universe. Mobile operating systems and platforms often aren't able to keep up with hackers and fraudsters, who exploit any opening they can find with impressive alacrity. As leaders, brands, brokers and marketers scramble to combat the loss of ad spend and degradation of brand image, the hackers simply turn to new tactics.
It’s an arms race that brands and marketers are currently losing.
Safety Violations Have Far-Reaching Consequences
One of the most common approaches to ad fraud is to generate a falsely high amount of traffic through bot activity. Advertising evildoers often accomplish this by installing malware on unsuspecting private computers, where they quickly run up website traffic on their own crummy sites, often riddled with errors, offensive content, irrelevant topics or plagiarized copy.
In some cases, clicking on the ad takes users to an entirely unexpected site, which is dedicated to irrelevant content at best and at worst is downright frightening. Users can’t help but become distrustful of ads as a whole, especially when they see so many nested next to the ugly and the verging-on-criminal. In catastrophic scenarios, an ad click translates to a complete virus takeover of the phone or tablet–a problem that takes time, money, effort and a lot of teeth-grinding for the owner to fix.
When this happens, brand safety takes a major hit. While the brand doesn’t actually have much control over this chain of events–it’s hard to control where their ads appear or what happens when they get clicked–the user has no one else with whom to associate the catastrophe. If your mobile device explodes right after you click an ad for art supplies … well, you’re probably going to get your art supplies somewhere else. We humans are risk-averse, and the brain quickly forms associations between negative consequences and their source, regardless of the gap between correlation and causation.
The short- and long-term implications of this are, to say the least, a real bummer. This highlights the need for education about brand safety violations, who causes and controls them, and what consumers can do to protect themselves more effectively.
As always, though, the burden rests with marketers to prove that their products have merit and that users should continue to trust them.
Clarity and Confidence Remain Critical for Ad Success and Brand Image
There are a number of things that individuals look for in their brand advertising, but two of the biggest issues are clarity and confidence. If they aren't sure what the ad is about or what the brand offers, they will lose interest quick. Unfortunately, ad fraud does much to undermine both clarity–by placing ads in irrelevant environments–and confidence–by executing a terrible user experience.
Neither a lack of clarity nor a failure to inspire confidence lead to brand loyalty, which means that fraudulent ads do more than waste the dollars devoted to that particular ad. They also eat away at the foundational trust users hold for brands. No Bueno.
According to eMarketer, concerns about brand safety are nothing new: “One well-worn example is that of an airline that wants to make sure its ads don’t show up next to news of an air tragedy. Everyone from marketers to consumers can easily understand why brands don’t want to associate with content that makes them look bad in any way.”
Luckily, it’s much easier to overcome a major flub if you have a lot of brand trust there in the first place. Think Target, Wells Fargo or Facebook, all of which have suffered breaches and inquisitions, but are still thriving. That makes it more important than ever to ensure your brands are clear and confident. What are you offering consumers? What will they get from clicking this ad? You can heighten the chances of creating such experiences by working with good advertisers and displaying your ads on reliable websites.
Media Quality: A Number One Issue for Advertisers
This whole clarity and confidence thing means that perceived brand quality is taking some serious hits due to fraud, which makes the advertising environment much harder to control. That makes ad quality even more important. Regardless of fraud, you want your prospects to see excellent content that answers their questions and makes them likelier to buy. That way, if the worst does happen, you’ll at least have more trust than you otherwise would.
For these reasons, it’s especially important to address the quality of your ads right away. Luckily, there exist a range of tactics you can use to improve your ads' quality scores … which not only affects your cost per click and ad ranking, it directly impacts how much users trust you. If you aren’t yet putting effort into optimizing your quality score, it’s time to start.
"Fake News" is a Real Thing for Advertisers and Businesses
While the term "fake news" is used largely in politics today, it's also a problem for businesses and advertisers. It causes issues for companies across the industry spectrum, with the result that potential customers don't know whom to trust.
Fraudsters also retarget, hijack or redirect ads, allowing spoofers and others to acquire information from individuals who have not authorized it and are then put at risk. Overall, people end up believing things that aren't actually true. They end up giving their information to sites they should have, and they may even have their identity or financial data stolen.
These problems can be avoided through proper safety measures, but not everyone takes those measures seriously. In some cases, changes are being made, but not fast enough for the people who want and need to see them: users, as well as the marketers who suffer brand safety violations, and as a result fail those users daily.
In short, advertisers find themselves in the middle of the issue with largely uncharted territory, and the map is still years out. (Though not, as we shall see, totally hopeless.)
Ad Viewability is Up, but It's Still Not Meeting Expectations
More and more people are viewing and clicking ads on their mobile devices. Considering mobile’s explosive growth in the last several years, this is expected and positive behavior.
However, the numbers still haven’t hit the heights advertisers and companies are aiming for. A lot of that is based on fears and concerns when it comes to brand safety and ad fraud. Until those problems are corrected, or at least greatly reduced, the viewability of ads is going to continue to fail to meet industry expectations. That's not something the companies who need the advertisement can correct alone. Unfortunately, advertisers can't correct it alone, either. It requires partnership between them and mobile device technology.
The technology that powers these devices is still relatively new, and there are bugs and problems that have yet to be worked out. For companies that are advertising, though, these fixes for ongoing issues can't come soon enough. Some companies may not survive their brand fraud and advertising problems, especially if they're on the edge of success or they have experienced severe issues in the past. For advertisers, making sure a brand is doing well and remaining successful is part of their livelihood, too. With everyone working together, brand safety on mobile devices can be increased to help everyone involved.
Companies Are Losing Brand Investment to Fraud at an Alarming Rate
When a company pays for advertising, they're investing in their brand. They're saying that they want the advertiser to showcase their brand or product, and that they need help bringing in customers and potential customers. And advertising, when done correctly, can bring in a lot of good business.
With all the ad fraud taking place, however, that business is slowly starting to dwindle. People don't want to click on ads they don't feel they can trust. Those who have already suffered a scarring experience are doubly unlikely to want to click–not just ads from the same brand that “betrayed them,” but brands in general.
The only solution to this is to increase perceived brand safety through greater protection from all quarters, but especially ad brokers, those middlemen between marketers and publishers. Over time, potential customers will see that they can once again trust companies to provide them with a safe and secure advertising experience. That in turn will generate purchases for companies and ad revenue for publishers, resulting in a renaissance of PPC marketing that benefits all.
It's Not All Bad News: Fighting Fraud in 2018
That’s the bad news, and there is indeed a lot of it. It’s not all bad, though. The past few years have seen some brands taking serious action, and seeing real results. Consider the case of financial behemoth JP Morgan Chase:
“Following the high-profile advertiser boycott of YouTube earlier this year, it reduced the number of sites its ads appear on from over 400,000 to 5,000 it reviewed and approved using intern labor,” explains ClickZ.
“The result: it didn’t notice any deterioration in the performance of its ad campaigns. While obviously not all of the 395,000 sites that didn’t make its whitelist weren’t operated by fraudsters, policing its campaigns against 5,000 approved sites will obviously be an easier task going forward than policing 400,000 sites, many of which weren’t delivering any discernible value anyway.”
Is this an extreme approach? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just necessary.
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