Mobile video advertisers seek takeover of quality control

The rise of mobile has brought old problems back to the surface while creating some new ones of its own for brands and advertisers seeking to follow their consumers. Loss of confidence in the quality and integrity of the platforms has led advertisers to seek more direct control over quality and transparency as they seek to bear down on fraud and brand contamination, while enhancing the viewability that can be more elusive than ever on mobile devices.

Such realities have been confirmed in a recent study by DoubleVerify, a provider of digital media measurement software, but have been coming out of the woodwork for some time and taken center stage at recent events such as the 2019 Brand Safety Summit staged in May.

DoubleVerify’s findings covering last year in its 2018 Global Insights Report identify three areas of concern that have been equally applicable in fixed online advertising for some years but have come to the boil with the proliferation of mobile. These are brand safety, digital ad fraud and viewability, which together are leading advertisers to seek independent authentication of how their digital assets are performing.

Brand contamination had to come to the fore with at least a perceived escalation in fake news, violent or unsuitable content and hate speech. Certainly brands have come into contact with such content through placement of their ads within online platforms such as YouTube. Google has naturally been working to reduce this risk and says it has over 100 people in a team dedicated to combating ad fraud. All the tech players have made efforts to bear down on “unsuitable” content to the extent they have been accused of veering towards censorship, although they are caught between a rock and a hard place.

At least Google Ads UK marketing director Nishma Robb conceded recently that it was impossible to guarantee total safety for brands on a site as large as YouTube given the huge volume of content posted. This came after the irony of AT&T, as well as Disney, putting a freeze on ad spending with YouTube out of brand safety concerns, following the infamous case that came to light in February 2019 of a pedophile ring using YouTube’s recommendation engine to discover innocuous videos of children and then post predatory comments. This highlighted the vulnerability of comments sections generally and their potential to pollute a brand by association even when the actual content is harmless.

Viewability is also a can of worms, in this case because of differences in definition. There is general agreement though that, no matter how it is measured, viewability of mobile ads is improving but is still not good enough. According to the Double Verify study, 56% of display ad impressions and 63% of video ad impressions are now viewable, but this is still short of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) target of 70%. The IAB defines viewability as occurring when at least 50% of an ad is displayed on screen for one second or more, which is an arbitrary definition. The problem has been compounded for mobile advertising with issues such as screen size which means that an ad that would be deemed viewable say on a smart TV might not be on a small smartphone.

The main point about viewability is that it has come a long way from the days when marketers would judge the relative success of a campaign by the clickthrough ratio, or CTR, measured by dividing the number of ads served by the number of clicks. It became clear that ads could not be viewed at all if they appeared below the fold of a web page and users never scrolled down to it. So ad location on the page became more of an art, and then came “sticky” or “rolling” ad units that remained locked in view as the user scrolled through the rest of the content.

The mobile dimension then came into play with responsive templates that resize ads according to how big the viewing device is. Another factor that became recognized as critical for viewability was speed, because sites laden with ads from multiple networks can take much longer to load, such that users click away before the ad can be viewed, defeating the whole object. Techniques for speeding up ad delivery naturally improve ad viewability, just as with the surrounding content itself.

All this muddies the waters and has created demand for third party software capable of measuring viewability beyond the IAB’s base level, on the basis of these more complex definitions.

There is also a mixed story over ad fraud. As the DoubleVerify study acknowledged, mobile ad fraud has ballooned by 800% with the rise of techniques such as app spoofing, where a rogue app fakes or misrepresents the app information sent through a bid request. A fraudulent app can take bids and swap out the app information it sends back in order to evade detection. It can use the same tactic to pose as a high-value app and boost CPMs (cost per 1,000 impressions).

Location spoofing is also proving profitable to fraudsters, where they deliberately misrepresent their coordinates – latitude and longitude – in the bid string. This not only helps avoid detection but can also be used to target individuals when they are close to a given venue or retail location; say, attracting higher prices from advertisers looking for users in that particular geographic profile.

Yet despite fast rising activity, there are signs of progress reducing the impact of ad fraud, according to the 2019 Bot Baseline Report published in May 2019 by US cybersecurity firm White Ops and the ANA (Association of National Advertisers). This found that while fraud attempts continue to account for 20% to 35% of all ad impressions, and therefore a growing volume, the proportion of fraud that gets through and gets paid for is now diminishing. For the first time ever, more than 50% of fraud attempts will be stopped in 2019, with total losses falling from $6.5 billion in the previous study in 2017 to $5.8 billion expected in 2019, equating to an 11% fall in two years.

The reason for this historical turn around is that the majority of fraudulent impressions are for the first time being invalidated by demand-side platforms (DSPs) or supply-side platforms (SSPs), filtered as SIVT (sophisticated invalid traffic) before either being paid for, or invalidated later via claw backs, which is recovered ad spend after a campaign has run.

The report warned however that ad fraud will always be with us and will follow the money, which is towards mobile. There is still therefore the risk of a further spike in lost revenues if new vulnerabilities resulting from differences within the ecosystem are not plugged.