When I was growing up in the ‘60s in Botswana and South Africa, there was a bit of conventional wisdom among those who ventured into the vastness of the Kalahari Desert. It was: Leave the motor running.
This was not to minimize the time to flee danger, but as a sort of protocol to inform animals that you were not sneaking up on them. Predators weaponize silence. You seem less like a predator if you broadcast your position.
For example, approaching a herd of elephants, if you turned off your motor, the big bull would look at you, and then walk aggressively toward you. If you were too stupid to turn your engine back on, he might put his tusks under your vehicle and flip it over, 200 miles from the nearest road.
Advertisers have something important to learn from elephants. That is, if a silent enemy is the basis for your fear, the solution is to improve your hearing, not to run around turning over land rovers. Elephants of course can’t improve their hearing, but advertisers can.
Look at viewability. Who knew? From 1996-ish, when the first digital ads appeared, to 2012 when the industry called out viewability, non-viewable impressions were rampant. That's 16 years!
Then it was bots and fraud. This has been going on for a long time, too. Silence prevailed while advertisers blithely spent billions on ads that certifiably did nothing. It’s still happening.
Recently, the big-ugly has been abuse of auction mechanics. Perhaps you have not heard about that? Like viewability, auction rules can be abused intentionally to make unfair profits, or can happen innocently as a natural result of glitches in bidding.
Who makes money from this process? Everybody except advertisers. I mention it not to start a fight, only to make a point. It’s the current silence.
I am not picking on digital, either. Traditional media has had these silences, too. For example, it was recently reported that networks intentionally misspell a program’s name when submitting program data to Nielsen. This avoids one episode’s low rating dragging down the rating for a series. Recent development, or endemic gaming of a measurement system?
For advertisers, the Darwinian truth is plain: What you don’t hear is what gets you. The elephants obviously knew that.
How to upgrade your hearing
It’s well-established that every time we get the ability to see (or hear) with higher resolution, our world view changes. So what is the electron microscope — or the x-ray crystallography — of advertising? I don’t know, but it’s coming. It will probably have something to do with how well we measure and deliver audiences that respond to messages.
Another strategy to manage hidden threats is to create conditions where threats don’t matter. We could manage to outcomes, for example. Advertisers who buy outcomes don’t care too much about bots and fraud, or predators in general. For them, a plan sells stuff — or not. If it doesn’t work, they adjust and move on.
What’s the difference between an impression to the wrong audience and one that went to a bot (both wasted)?
Easy. A bot is certainly the wrong audience, and an iffy prospect or sloppy delivery is probably (but not certainly) the wrong audience. An iffy impression at least gives a reason for hope.
So, the difference between certainly wasted and maybe-wasted is hope.
Ergo, advertisers who won’t pay for the best measurement and attribution are basically doing faith-based advertising.
What business do we have assuming we hear every threat when history clearly shows that we have not?
If brands can’t define and measure how each impression maps to success, there’s a poltergeist in the machine. Silence should be scary, and we are professional noise-makers. I guess the din of our own machinations drowns out the quiet signals of predators.