The Discrepancies Battle: Reporting From the Front Lines of Mobile Ad Operations

Ad Operations is simultaneously one of the most important and most thankless digital jobs. When everything goes right with an ad campaign, the ops contribution is invisible and often overlooked. When anything goes wrong, however, ad ops is the first line of defense (and the first group to get blamed).

For those outside that world, I recommend What Happens in Ad Operations, a hilariously not-safe-for-ad-sales blog, where the digital ad ops community commiserates. Add mobile to the mix and the complexities and headaches ratchet even higher.

One everyday challenge for the mobile ad ops community is discrepancies or disparities in counting ads between an agency’s ad server and a publisher’s ad server. Discrepancies have existed in digital advertising since the dawn of third-party ad serving. However, over a decade of hard-won experience, standards and best practices mean discrepancies for PC-based ad campaigns (mostly) fall into an acceptably low and predictable range.

By contrast, mobile ad count discrepancies vary wildly, from 5 percent to over 50 percent. Frustratingly, it’s not always easy to tell why, or to predict from one campaign to the next which will be highly discrepancy-ridden and which will fall within reasonable bounds.

This year, the IAB Mobile Center hosted a couple of industry dialogs, bringing buyer and seller ops experts together to discuss identifying and addressing discrepancies.

Part of the explanation for the wide variance of mobile discrepancies is the nature of the mobile beast. These are the usual litany things that make everything in mobile challenging: the array of device types, operating systems (and versions thereof), and apps all creating opportunities for counts to go awry, as does the intermittent nature of mobile connectivity as devices move in and out of coverage.

However, our industry conversations led to the conclusion that the most common root causes of mobile discrepancies will be very familiar to anyone who has dealt with the issue in the desktop world: human error, timing of ad calls, and differences in vendors’ reporting and targeting capabilities.

The IAB is helping address the discrepancy problem. Getting ad servers to use consistent baseline standards for mobile impression measurement (for example, using client-side, not server-side, counting methodologies) will almost certainly reduce discrepancies. We issued just such guidelines earlier this year for apps and mobile web; now we need ad servers to move into compliance with and be audited against them.

Summarizing our industry conversations, IAB recently published Mobile Discrepancies: Exploring Common Root Causes. This piece recommends that campaign timelines build in steps to test campaign reporting (not just creative) before launch.

A major source of discrepancy headaches arises when the ad servers incorrectly think they are tracking the same thing. For example, location-targeted campaigns will inevitably run into problems if one ad server tracks geolocation based on the device’s GPS, while the other relies on IP address. Both parties may think they are talking about the same thing, i.e.: whether the user appropriately saw an ad based on where they were. Yet the data will never match up.

Understanding mobile discrepancies and establishing lines of communications to address them are key steps for the maturation of mobile advertising, but the mobile ad ops plate is very full beyond that. Making sure that ad creative will actually work on mobile devices and handling the issues that arise as the not-yet-standardized mobile world moves to enable programmatic buying are also big challenges.

The complexities of the contemporary ad ops world-including those mobile adds to the mix-shape the agenda of the upcoming IAB Ad Ops Summit, another chance to commiserate, but also to learn and share best practices.

Although Thanksgiving is still a month away, I’d like to say a hearty thank you to the mobile ad ops community (and especially members of our Mobile Ad Ops Working Group). You’re the unsung heroes making mobile advertising happen.

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