Inventory quality is something we hear a lot of about in today’s complex digital media environment. In my role, I have the benefit of sitting right in the middle, between buyer and seller, and I can assure you that everyone has an opinion on this topic. The last few years have seen some real innovation around ad quality. But despite all of this innovation, many in the industry are left scratching their heads, especially media owners.
Allow me to digress for a moment. Not too long ago media buyers would select a handful of publishers based on brand quality (name recognition), credibility, and audience composition. These few publishers would get the lion’s share of the media budget and the client would be happy. Simple. This played out in a similar fashion on television. However, with the invention of cable, fragmentation occurred. Networks flourished and hundreds of programs arose making it much more difficult for buyers. So the networks launched the upfront to preview new programs, packaged them based on predicted ratings and audiences, and used very glitzy events in NY and LA to sell multi-million dollar programs to the agencies. These media owners now go to great lengths to put content in front of buyers in order to make them comfortable with the quality of the program and ensure that the brand will “fit” within the experience.
Digital has experienced a similar path. In the early 2000’s, the portals and a few leading brands were getting the bulk of the media budgets. Then the Internet explosion happened and thousands of niche content sites were developed. Audiences were driven to the obscure reaches of the web by Google and later social media. Ad networks started aggregating, packaging, and making it easier for the buyer to manage the fragmentation and ensure credibility. This worked quite well and the networks added value beyond just simple aggregation. They innovated by providing insights, creative support, targeting advancements, and scale.
This brings us up to where I left off. Now enter real-time bidding (RTB) and exchanges. These are the latest innovations driving media efficiency for buyers and making it very easy for publishers to list inventory for sale – in many cases even fictitious or fraudulent inventory. The largest exchanges, Google’s AdX and OpenX Market, have so much inventory now that it is nearly impossible for the buyers to differentiate between good and bad inventory. This has impacted prices and forced agencies to begin building their own whitelists of URLs (similar to the networks of the late ’90s and early ’00s). And this is my point: the exchange ecosystem has so much inventory, from so many providers, that now the very few companies controlling these exchanges are using technology as the arbiter of quality. Technology is a great way to make a first pass at scale. It likely catches the worst actors, but many legitimate publishers get caught in the net too. For instance, a recent article named 10 publishers that are using malicious tactics to generate inventory and deemed their sites to be of poor quality. While a few of those sites deserved to be mentioned, at least one publisher on the list has built a legitimate digital publishing business and uses common SEO tactics for audience development. But because of an algorithm, the publisher was singled out and maligned.
Advertising will always need a human touch. Marketing is an art and a science and technology cannot fill both of those roles. I believe that the pendulum has swung too far to the science and people aren’t using common sense to evaluate where a brand belongs or how to judge quality content. We see similar problems when an exchange outright blacklists a site because its technology flagged a few pages dealing with war or sex. If that site is a news site or an alternative news weekly, the audience clearly expects to find content pertaining to such topics. I’m not condoning or suggesting objectionable content is acceptable, just proposing that there are many brands that want to reach audiences associated with publications that cover these topics. The context may be completely within their tolerance standards. These sites should not be penalized for their coverage of a particular health topic or for covering a sensitive political issue. The programmatic buyers have more control today than ever before. My fear is that many of them may simply be taking the easiest path, and not the one most appropriate for their client.
I’ve said it before and I still believe it to be true. There is always a need for a conversation about a client’s goals and objections. Media planners should be well-informed of all the possibilities and not simply rely on technology to do all the work for them. We should embrace the technology. It can remove friction in the buy process. However, it also has the ability to isolate, and even eliminate, inventory altogether. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and jump to conclusions based on one report that reveals a single page with risky content. Look, instead, at the bigger picture and determine if the overall environment is right for your brand. And publishers, take heed. Always take the high road. Be true to your consumer. Be respectful of your advertisers by keeping pages clean, with as few ads as possible, and don’t play games with traffic sharing or forced impressions. In that game, everyone loses.
What do you think?
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