Tectonic Shift – When Robots Attack

Last week there was a tectonic shift in how our industry trades media. There will be a massive ripple effect that will likely be felt well into 2015. If you haven’t seen the study conducted by the ANA (Association of National Advertisers) and White Ops, run, don’t walk, to pick up a copy. Over a 60-day period, 36 advertisers allowed White Ops to study the traffic associated with 181 campaigns and the results are unnerving. Twenty-three percent of all video ads and 11 percent of display impressions were found to be caused by bots. The study evaluated both direct buys as well as programmatic and found that programmatic inventory had slightly higher bot rates, but by an insignificant amount. The financial impact to buyers is substantial given that 10 percent to 25 percent of a media plan’s spend is going to bots.

This study has finally shed light on a problem that our industry is aware of, but is unwilling or unable to resolve. As scary as the study reads, I think it is a clarion call for all of us to open our eyes and take a hard look at how digital advertising has evolved, how consumer behaviors have changed, and what we should be doing to service brands and their marketing activities in a responsible, controlled fashion with real accountability. More than a decade ago, we developed methods to eliminate wasted media spend, which led to the widespread declaration that digital media was far more accountable and efficient than analog media. While everyone still believes this to be true, we have allowed technology vendors, venture capital firms, global connectivity, and general growth to cloud the media buying process. Today, large chunks of media are bought via third-party vendors who execute open market buys across a publisher’s inventory with whom they had no previous relationship. This in itself has fueled the growth of fraud.

We have seen in the last few months the major agencies, a few big brands, and large publishers focus on creating private marketplaces in an effort to reconnect the buyer and seller directly to create more control in the buying process. This is just the first step, however, and there are still many technology vendors sitting between the buyer and seller who control the billing process. This exposes yet another opportunity for financial fraud or kick-backs. Until the billing relationship is directly managed between the agency side and the publisher side, multiple avenues exist for prices to be obscured and immense power to be endowed to the DSP or SSP sitting in the middle. Technology vendors are quickly becoming the media company, while the actual publisher brands have been forgotten (or at the very least, suppressed to a whitelist). If not corrected, this nonchalant attitude toward inventory management and buying will only take us deeper into the rabbit hole.

There are a number of systemic issues that can be solved to dramatically reduce and ultimately eliminate the industry’s bad actors. The ANA study suggests a few recommendations to stave off bots and fraud from a media execution perspective, but by themselves these are tactics that the bots will adapt and overcome. The study suggests focusing media spend during waking hours (bots can be easily programmed to operate at different times of day), and to remove older versions of browsers from the plan (again, bots use all browser types and can mascaraed as anything when viewing a Web page). A final suggestion is to demand transparency of traffic, which is good, but bots view every site and optimizing placements off a plan is never a straightforward exercise considering the erratic behavior of bots.

The good news is that everyone in our industry needed to hear the facts, and collectively we need to be prepared for this massive attack. Monitoring campaigns and including language so buyers will not pay for non-human traffic is a good step, but we need a more aggressive stance. My company (Xaxis) is actively auditing inventory in real time received from publishers for non-human traffic, illegal content/high-risk content, and quarantining this inventory so no one can buy or resell it. Combined with the addition of a highly curated set of inventory sourced directly from publishers, this is a big step in thwarting the bot and fraudulent activity providing advertisers with the control, transparency, and quality environment which they expect.

What are you doing to stop the robot attack and ensure that your clients are only buying real human viewers?

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