How viral content became a hotbed of online ad fraud and what can be done to stamp it out

Just weeks ago, Unilever, one of the biggest advertising spenders in the world, threatened to pull ads from digital and social platforms if they fail to eradicate content which “creates division in society and promotes anger and hate.” Considering that Unilever spent over $9 billion (£6.4) billion on advertising in 2017 and recently stated its intention to increase this spend by £220 million in 2018 (Marketing Week), the industry is forced to take the call to action seriously. 

While there has been praise for some platforms’ primary efforts toward a brand-safe environment, but the larger problem persists. Advertisers, generally, are fed up with fighting for the enforcement of editorial, creative, or brand safety standards on the internet that traditional media companies have long upheld. Meanwhile, fraud, a parallel threat, continues to undermine brands’ trust in the programmatic marketplace.

the quantity of ads is degrading quality of user experience

The quantity of ads is degrading quality of user experience. Amazon is challenging the balance of power in the ecosystem. And transparency throughout the digital advertising supply chain is an ever-present qualm.

There are many fixes to be made. But the industry would do well to start by addressing one of the most rampant issues associated with ad fraud: the dangers of viral content.

AppNexus’ data scientists have devoted a great deal of time and attention to the investigation of fake news, viral content, and ad fraud, to ensure we optimally support our clients in these areas. When the team dug in, they came to the conclusion that fake news is a subcategory of viral content. As we saw throughout the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the EU referendum vote in the UK, these ideologically-slanted, factually-dubious stories exist to get readers fired up, engaged, and clicking through to stories.

Developing a roadmap

While “going viral” is often the goal for stories of major media companies, the most likely publishers to be engaged in fraud are those that have chosen to build their business entirely on viral content, relying on the traffic it generates to boost revenue. These low-quality publishers are distinct in that they are more likely to be motivated solely by money — or at least more brazen about their pursuit of it — and wholly unconcerned about the quality of their content.

Also, these low-quality publishers are more likely to lack any sort of regular, organic traffic. As a result, they have to rebuild their audiences every day, especially when the latest batch of outrageous headlines fails to deliver, and purchasing fraudulent traffic is the easiest, quickest route to increased monetization.

advertisers need to dig into their data

The global proliferation of viral hoaxes facilitated through social platforms has helped expose this critical problem facing the digital advertising industry. Beyond identifying obviously fraudulent actions, industry stakeholders must commit to vigilantly stamping out fraud, and supporting quality data science teams to develop best practices for doing so. There is a lot at stake if the issues associated with viral content and ad fraud are not addressed, and the duopoly in particular must be held to account.

Advertisers too need to develop a roadmap for combatting fraud. For advertisers to remove the threat of ad fraud, they need to dig into their data. Their best weapon is an audit of their supply chain through every tool at their disposal. When JPMorgan took the time to manually audit the 400,000 websites its ads were running on, the company eliminated all but 5,000.

Notably, removing these sites had no impact on performance, meaning that the company had previously been buying ads on 395,000 websites that provided little value. Advertisers must also ask publishers where their traffic comes from. If a publisher buys traffic from third-party sources, brands should avoid purchasing their impressions. It’s that simple.

Viable alternatives

Finally, advertisers must talk to vendors and programmatic partners. The key to solving this problem is honest and transparent communication and clarity at all stages.

It’s time for advertisers to start using viable alternatives to these walled garden platforms on the open internet, which are transparent, brand safe, and fairly priced. If the duopoly isn’t going to do enough, independent ad tech providers must enable brands to transact is fraud-free, brand-safe, and transparent marketplaces.

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