There’s a digital ad fraud outbreak – one that gobbles up roughly $14 billion in advertising spend and between 25 and 50% of ad spend per campaign. White Ops CEO and cofounder Michael Tiffany likens the landscape to a cholera outbreak. Bots cause their devastation in a certain corner of the web and move on.
White Ops is about to embark on a month-long study with the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) to try and determine the true extent of digital ad fraud among a representative selection of the ANA’s membership.
“If you look at different campaigns or networks, the range of bot traffic can be 1% or more than 90%,” said Tiffany. “It would be foolish to say something like, ‘Cholera is hitting one-fourth of households;’ that doesn’t make sense. The point of doing this study is to try and put some bounds around the problem in a definitive, measured way.”
Thirty ANA members across a variety of industries — including automotive, CPG, financial, retail, tech, and travel — have agreed to include White Ops tags in their existing digital media over the month of August in an attempt to get a read on the percentage of display, video, mobile, and social campaigns affected by bot fraud. Individual participants will get proprietary reports at the end of the experiment with information on overall fraud rate, fraud broken down by platform (desktop versus mobile), format, and channel (publisher versus network or exchange). The ANA also plans to aggregate the results and release them industry-wide around September or October.
“Clearly everyone is aware that the issue exists, but we need to make advertisers aware of how severe it is,” said ANA group EVP Bill Duggan. “We also need to get them to take some ownership of the solution, rather than just saying, ‘This is my agency’s problem.’”
Although it wouldn’t be fair to say that publishers don’t care about digital ad fraud, advertisers have the most to lose. Although publishers want their inventory to be as clean as possible, they’re not the ones getting robbed. Of the three main players on the scene — publishers, agency folk, and advertisers — brands have the most to lose, and the most to gain, by creating a cleaner digital environment.
And right now, it’s pretty messy out there. Bot operators are, as expected, most attracted to higher CPM campaigns. The more sophisticated ones are even able to subvert targeting technology for their own purposes by spoofing cookies and other browser metadata, in essence, creating a situation in which bots are actually being targeted by digital ads that confuse them for the real thing.
Tiffany said he often sees that happen in the video space, where the CPMs are worth a bot’s while. Bots looking to cash in on video ads have to run full browsers with plug-ins and have the ability to play full videos.
Less sophisticated bots have also colonized social and display, where the buys are generally cheaper and performance-based.
Least affected at the moment is mobile. Despite the fact that it’s being bandied about as the next big digital advertising frontier, the money just isn’t in there yet, which is why bots aren’t focused on infiltrating the actual device. To suck of mobile ad dollars, bots generally run mobile phone emulators in the background on desktops.
“And believe me, it’s not a technical limitation,” Tiffany said. “Bad guys follow the money.”