Commentary

Define Gray Lines In Programmatic Before They Define You

The democratization of media, the advent of low-cost programmatic, and the growth of ad blocking have left many digital publishers struggling to keep the lights on.  Some have relied on the strength of their content to attract more users.  Others have tried to raise the price of media on their properties, usually by bundling it together with data and/or creative formats and services.  But having fallen short in similar attempts, a growing niche of publishers—especially long-tail publishers who rely on networks and exchanges to sell their inventory—are resorting to alternative methods.  

While “alternative methods” can mean a lot of things, the primary reaction of the industry has been to codify the definition of invalid traffic.  Based on these guidelines, it’s not okay for a publisher to place ads in such a way that they can never be seen by a human. It’s not okay for a publisher to charge advertisers on traffic generated by data centers or web crawlers.  And for the benefit of all stakeholders, publishers and advertisers alike are now employing verification technology in order to monitor, refund, and in some cases even block this kind of behavior.

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But the next frontier is already here.  Wherever lines are drawn, there are grey lines.  And digital advertising is no different.  

Let’s say a publisher sells inventory based on a 100% viewable guarantee: advertisers have to pay only for viewable impressions, based on the MRC’s definition of having at least 50% of an ad’s pixels in view for at least one second (display).  Let’s say that from verification reporting, the advertiser discovers that the publisher has been forcing their iFrames to auto-refresh every 5 seconds.  Sometimes it loads the same ad again into that same space, to the same user (costing the advertiser another impression).  Other times it cycles through several brands during that same user session (robbing the advertiser of extended brand exposure).  Was that fraud? Is it a violation of the terms of sale?

There are many other “gray” ways in which a publisher may manipulate an ad’s exposure in order to maximize profits.  Serving multiple ads from the same advertiser in the same space, or packing ads from many advertisers into the same space, are just a couple examples.  In each case, without transparency, the advertiser loses.  

In other industries, inherent transparency leads to a certain measure of quality control. For instance, living in a free-market economy, I have the choice to stop buying from a particular retailer if their clothes keep ripping.  The quality of their product is self-evident.  But digital media is different, because the fact that a publisher’s customers (advertisers) are not the same as their consumers (users) leads to a classic case of information asymmetry.  

Ultimately, standards are meant to define the minimum of what’s acceptable.  And the Media Rating Council's recent guidelines on invalid traffic are no exception: Each advertiser will still need to decide where to draw their own lines, above and beyond that basic threshold.  Armed with the right information, they can specifically target away from certain kinds of sub-par inventory on programmatic, where it’s most prevalent.  On direct buys, they can monitor qualitative data points and choose where to shift budgets.  But before an advertiser can be proactive about certain publisher practices they find unacceptable, they need to first understand that they’re happening.

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