Want to buy digital media, but don’t know how to do it right? Well, then this article is what will help you! (You can also read our other articles on this topic)
Recent stats show that digital advertising hit $140 billion in 2020 in the U.S. It is well known that there’s a large amount of digital ad fraud, although the exact amount is disputed, ranging from 1% to 100%. It is also well known that the largest brand advertisers love buying vast quantities of ads, at low CPM prices, with the appearance of high “performance.” They choose to ignore the fact that the vast quantities, low prices, and high clicks are only possible from fake sites and apps with fake users — bots (automated software) that load ads and click on them. There’s not enough humans on earth to generate the 500 trillion ad opportunities per year; but that’s trivial for vast botnets, like the ones previously used for DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks.
If a marketer genuinely cared about driving real business outcomes with digital marketing, like small and medium businesses, how can they buy digital media while minimizing their exposure to ad fraud? Keep in mind that these small businesses can’t afford any fraud detection technologies. But as you will see below, those detection technologies are not necessary if you know how to buy digital media while minimizing fraud in the first place.
What follows are broad-stroke recommendations. Of course there are exceptions and nuances, but these are meant to provide starting points for digital ad buyers who want to do more themselves, to minimize fraud and maximize business outcomes.
Start with strict include-lists
If you buy ads through programmatic channels, and that includes buying through Google Ads, the best way to avoid 99% of the fraud is to start with very strict include lists. What does “strict” mean? It means very very short. Let’s start with a thought exercise — “name the top ten sites you visit every day, as fast as possible.” How many did you rattle off before you started slowing down? For most people, it’s between 5 – 8 and then they slow down. Now do the same with mobile apps. If you can’t quickly name off ten sites and ten apps that you use every day, how many millions of sites and apps are used by real humans? Probably not a large fraction of the 1.5 billion registered domains, or the 350 million active websites, or the 10 million mobile apps.
I am sure you are worried you won’t get “scale” if you take this approach. But think about it this way — the large scale that you hear about comes from long tail sites that have few human visitors; those sites generate ad revenue by buying bot traffic. If your ads run on those sites, they are shown to bots. So all that scale will not drive meaningful business outcomes. It’s just large numbers on a spreadsheet. Do you want to be paying for expensive spreadsheets or do you want to do digital marketing?
A note on “direct buys” is warranted here. Buying direct from a publisher is a good thing; it minimizes the supply path — the number of middlemen extracting profits from your dollar before it reaches the publisher, to show the ad. However, buying direct does not solve the ad fraud problem if the publisher is a cheater. For example, if the publisher is the one buying the bot traffic, or if they are doing other shady things on the site to increase revenues, like ad stacking (stacking 50 ads on top of each other in the same ad slot), pixel stuffing (stuffing ads or entire webpages in hidden 1×1 pixel windows), popunders, ad slot refreshing, etc. Even if you buy direct, you should have analytics in place to monitor your ads and look for anomalies.
For example, in the chart above, there are 2 examples of hourly patterns. Each green bar represents the volume by hour. Note that in the first case, virtually all of the volume is blown out in the midnight hour; right when the day ticks over, the volume is maxed out, leaving little to none for the rest of the day, when humans are awake and online. The second chart shows the volume a bit more spread out, but still most of it is used up before noon, with none left for the second half of the day. As you might have guessed, these are bot traffic patterns — where the bots deliver the traffic and clicks as quickly as possible. If you don’t have hourly data, you won’t see this and you’ll think you got a lot of traffic.
How to buy from “Walled Gardens”
You may have heard the term “walled gardens” used to refer to Google and Facebook. That term comes from the fact that they set their own rules and the fact that most users are logged into Facebook or one or more of Google’s services at any given time — e.g. Gmail, Android, YouTube, etc. if you buy media and do marketing on these platforms, the same principles mentioned above apply.
If you run search ads on Google, make sure they stay on google.com. That minimizes ad fraud because the fraud bots have no financial motive to cause large quantities of ads to load on google.com — i.e. they can’t make money from that. Fraud bots go to sites that pay them for traffic. The sites in Google’s search partner network have the motive (make more money) and the means (these fraud bots) to increase their own ad revenue by paying the bots to generate ad impressions and click on them. So if you limit your search ads to the main property, you already minimize exposure to fraud bots (you do this by turning off “search partners”).
The same goes for Facebook. You can avoid most of the simple ad fraud by turning off FAN (“Facebook Audience Network”). FAN comprises all of the sites and apps outside of Facebook that monetize using its ad platform. They also have the motive and means to increase their own ad revenue by using bots. So by turning off FAN, you avoid most of this kind of fraud. The ads that run on Facebook itself, including Instagram, are shown to be highly effective. Just be prepared for much smaller quantities and fewer clicks, than if you left FAN on and let the deluge of fake impressions and clicks into your campaigns.
How to buy YouTube and CTV (Connected TV)
Finally, if you buy video ads on YouTube and CTV, avoid the spray and pray. Ads that run across YouTube are at high risk of appearing next to unsavory or outright inappropriate content. It’s UGC (“user-generated content”) after all. Are you OK with your ads appearing before, during, and after yoga porn, beheading, bomb-making, terrorist and child abuse videos on YouTube? Of course not. So if you buy ads on YouTube, be sure to select the channels and creators that have a demonstrable history of producing good and useful content. There are many gems on YouTube; you can find those channels and creators that are appropriate for your brand and your audience. This is just like the include-list approach above; include specific YouTube channels in your buys to avoid practically all of the bad stuff.
The same goes for CTV. Manually curate the CTV apps that have humans and that have appropriate audiences for your brand. If you haven’t heard of a CTV app, chances are that other humans have not either. It doesn’t matter that there are tens of thousands of apps in the Roku app store. How many of those are used by humans? Select those and include those and you will avoid the vast majority of the fraud that is already affecting CTV media.
After reading the above, hopefully you notice the recurring theme. Buy digital media from a carefully selected list of good publishers, real mobile apps, real YouTube creator channels, real CTV apps, etc. There are a finite number of humans that use a finite number of sites, apps, CTV channels, etc. for finite amounts of time and generate a finite number of ad impressions. The vast scale that programmatic digital media purports to have is made up mostly of fake sites and fake apps that have fake users generate fake ad impressions. “Missing out” of that “scale” is a good thing; it will certainly make your digital marketing better. If your ads are shown to humans, you will get better business outcomes. Let other gullible marketers buy that scale. You know how to avoid the fraud and do better digital marketing.
Do not be afraid to experiment, if you make a list of ads that you would like to buy you will be easier to analyze what and why you buy. The better your understanding of media buying, the more consistent the results will be. I wish you the best of luck with your media buying!