First published on ET Insights here.
The bluestreak cleaner wrasse lives in the coral reefs near Eastern Africa, they clean larger fishes by eating parasites and dead tissues off them. When larger fishes, called “clients”, approach these “cleaning stations”, the bluestreak cleaner wrasse greets them by performing a dance-like motion in which they wriggle their rear up and down. The “clients” recognize the cleaner basis the movement patterns and allows them access to their body surface, gills and sometimes the mouth. It’s a symbiotic relationship that provides the wrasse with food and “clients” with health benefits. But, in these corals also resides the combtooth blenny, the false cleaner fish. They mimic the dance of the bluestreak wrasse and trick the “clients” into mistaking them for a cleaner. The “clients”, thus fooled, allow the blenny to come close to it. Upon which, the blenny attacks the client and tears away portions of its fin for food. By masquerading as a wrasse, the blenny carries out a sophisticated fraud. Not unlike the bots and other sophisticated tools that carry out online advertising fraud and walk away with billions of advertising dollars.
One half of advertising
In the post COVID-19 environment many companies are new to digital advertising. These advertisers, dazzled by digital advertising’s shiny toys, may be ignorant of online advertising fraud. And then there are some advertisers, who remain in denial to the perils of ad fraud and adopt a struthious attitude. But ad fraud is a real problem for the digital advertising ecosystem. According to some reports it is estimated to rise to an average of 45-55 percent of all digital advertising. From John Wannamaker’s days of worrying about half of advertising being wasted and not knowing which half, we may have progressed to a certainty of knowing that half is lost to fraud.
Fraud in digital advertising comes in myriad forms; from simple bots clicking on ads, to generating fake traffic to advanced heists where they can simulate human actions like mouse movements, page scrolls and clicks. They can even block tracking tags or manipulate their measurements to make fraudulent ads appear valid. And then there are fake sites and apps that pretend to be legitimate by “blending in”. These new age outlaws run amok in the online Wild West with its lack of transparency, fragmented supply side and “walled-gardens”. Combating online fraud, no different from the real world, is a perilous and ceaseless cops-and-robber saga.
Combating ad fraud
BAV (Brand Safety, Ad Fraud and Viewability) tools are probably the first line of defense most advertisers invest in. In most cases loss aversion; calculating the delta between the potential loss to fraud or poor viewability and the incremental CPM, helps justify these investments. Companies offering programmatic advertising solutions deploy advanced Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) tools to improve digital ad media effectiveness. And now, blockchain seems to hold some potential; to decentralize the digital media ecosystem, introduce verification and audits to eliminate fraud.
Intelligence and not only Artificial
It may also be helpful to remember that digital advertising is simply advertising in the digital medium. Hence, one of most effective ways of countering the impact of ad fraud lies in tracking real business outcomes from digital advertising spends and in not getting lost with vanity metrics.
Metrics like number of social media followers or likes and other fancy analytics that look good on paper but add little or no value to your business or brand goals are vanity metrics. And they are also very susceptible to fraud. If you do not understand how a metric reflects performance versus your goals, it’s probably not worth looking at. As it’s popularly stated; not everything that’s important to marketing can be measured and not everything that can be measured is important.
Hence, in addition to the tech, retaining a grounded sticking-to-the-basics approach may well be the best way to combat digital ad fraud.