Volkswagen’s problems over its defeat devices have revealed that even having the best brand and the smartest engineers doesn’t always result in market-beating products. Sometimes, problems appear to be beyond resolution and the only option left is to cheat. It is a situation the performance marketing industry knows only too well, but is yet to be forced to confront.
In the case of the automotive manufacturer, its current difficulties appear to be the result of an engine which was known to be unlikely to pass emissions tests in key markets, especially the US. Re-engineering a cleaner version would take years, so a short-term fix was necessary. In this case, it is alleged that software was introduced to detect when the engine was being tested and lean out the fuel mixture to keep emissions within legal limits.
Advertisers may feel they have been the victims of similar defeat devices when they come to compare the amount they spend on digital ads compared to the results which are delivered at the back end. In a presentation at this week’s Performance Marketing Insights event, Samuel Scott of Logz.io talked about the $7.5 billion scandal of digital display advertising.
The problem is created along these lines. Publishers sell their ad inventory based on the number of impressions they get, charging fractions of a pence for each ad served. Higher traffic means more revenue, so publishers have little self-interest in ensuring that impressions are from human users of their sites.
This is where the fakery begins, since one estimate has it that 60 per cent of all internet traffic is from bots which trigger ad networks to serve content. How closely any publisher investigates their traffic figures and discounts non-human traffic when setting prices for ad inventory is anybody’s guess.
Another estimate claims at least 15 per cent of online ads are not served correctly or are broken. Ad networks are responsible for correctly serving content - they are also identified (by Scott among others) as selling bot traffic to publishers to up their impression figures. Ad agencies and media buyers then purchase impressions on behalf of clients, benefitting from volume discounts that mean they earn more if the traffic is higher.
Clients are sitting at the wrong end of that complex chain and may be getting as little as 8 per cent of the inventory they are paying actually seen by a human. Factor in the low click-through rate from most online display ads and it is clear that something about this industry smells worse that a VW diesel engine exhaust.
While there are some steps being taken to drive fraud out of this supply chain, for many advertisers the only solution may be to do their own investigation into the output from their campaigns. Data and analytics have a role to play - the raw data from tag management systems, for example, will reveal if one operating system and user-agent string is driving a lot of traffic, a sure sign that bots are at work. Similarly, traffic originating in certain countries should be blocked and ad-fraud detection systems deployed. Manual checks may even be necessary to ensure the websites claimed to be serving up ads actually exist.
Advertisers find themselves in an asymmetrical relationship with publishers - how much leverage does any brand really have with the likes of Facebook or Google (both working to improve viewability and ensure their impressions are certifiably human)? Even affiliates and ad networks are likely to be unresponsive to individual advertiser complaints. But clients can at least give their agencies a few nasty moments by demanding more detailed metrics and proofs that what they see is really what they are getting. Do publishers, ad networks and agencies think they won’t get found out? Perhaps. But they might want to consider the plight of VW first.