Avoid 'A Nightmare Before Christmas': Protect Your Seasonal Advertising Buys

From Black Friday to "Super Saturday," the final quarter of the year is a nonstop shopping extravaganza.

Consumer spending is at a peak -- hitting GBP 74.6 billion last year in the UK alone -- and in an effort to target those potential customers, brands pump billions into seasonal advertising campaigns. But along with lucrative conversions comes a greater chance of wasted ad investment; lost to fraudulent impressions and low viewability rates.

Avoiding a nightmare before Christmas requires planning informed by a deep understanding of potential threats. Here, we explore trends spotted during the last festive season to provide an idea of what the pitfalls might be in 2019.

Tricks for treats: fraud is still rife

Fraud has become an industry Christmas tradition, with Methbot in 2016, Hyphbot in 2017, and the Android scheme of 2018.

Analysis shows that efforts to address fraud are making progress. When comparing holiday-specific data with benchmarks from figures from the latter half (H2) of 2018, we can see a slight dip in festive foul play year-on-year as a shift toward programmatic campaigns grows. 

This may be partly due to greater adoption of ads.txt and more advanced machine learning models to detect and combat fraudulent activity -- but it doesn’t mean there are no monsters hiding under the bed.

Last year, desktop ad fraud for holiday campaigns averaged 1.38%.However, a comparison to the H2 2018 benchmark of 1.05% shows that fraudulent activity is higher for the festive period. This is also mirrored for video inventory, where ad fraud averaged 1.32% in Q4 versus 1.1% in H2 2018.

Peaks in fraudulent activity also aligned with key shopping dates, with November attracting desktop fraud aimed at capturing spend from Black Friday campaigns. While video -- a high-value inventory option that is usually popular with brands and consumers alike -- was especially appealing to bad actors around New Year’s Eve. On the night itself, video was almost a third (28%) more susceptible to fraud.

Stuck in the shadows: low viewability

The good news is that brands have an opportunity to make an impact during the Christmas rush, with viewability remaining steady at between 60% and 67%.

The bad news is that rates were typically 5-10% lower than the rest of the year, meaning that an ad’s chance of capturing audience attention also reduced. At certain times, the contrast was even sharper: including Black Friday and "Super Saturday" — usually the last shopping weekend before Christmas — where viewability was up to 20% lower than the H2 2018 benchmark.

The data, however, did reveal some exceptions. Mobile, for instance, was the best-performing media when it comes to ad viewability: surpassing the average by nearly 3%, as on-the-go consumers searched for the perfect present.

Typically, the period between Christmas and the New Year was the best time to drive video engagement, with video viewability outshining desktop as consumers relax into the festive season. In addition, the wider impression drop that follows the holidays corresponded with a decrease in competition for consumer eyeballs, and a return to average viewability of 70%. 

The strategy that saved Christmas

Clearly, there is more for brands to consider when building seasonal campaigns than which offers will engage their target audience. As well as producing engaging creative, marketers’ ad-buying approach must be carefully configured to leverage the most effective environments and minimise risk. To achieve this, brands will need a proactive protection strategy.

The form this defensive planning takes will differ for each organisation, however there are key elements that all strategies should include to maximise budgets:

1. Verification: Brands need to know who, what, and where they are buying, and this makes comprehensive verification a fundamental first step. Alongside a broad list of basic requirements — including the ability to mitigate against varied brand risks and use preferred viewability standards — it is also important to choose trusted partners that safeguard returns by actively investing in sophisticated anti-fraud detection technology. 

2. Optimisation: While each strategy will be tied to specific business objectives, general trends should play a part in guiding buying decisions. For example, mobile has a stronger percentage of impressions on the weekends than desktop, meaning that it will be a more effective focus for overall spend — especially in the last buying week before Christmas.

3. Activate: Last but not least there are several measures brands can adopt to further increase the security of their buys before parting with budgets. For instance, the perils of "Super Saturday" will make pre-bid viewability targeting a wise move for any brand trying to enhance exposure without wasting spend. Plus, implementing pre-bid fraud targeting in open auction and curated marketplaces will save brands the confusion that can arise from trying to factor in reimbursements for fraud when assessing results. 

Christmas might be the most wonderful time of the shopping year, but there are also huge opportunities for fraudsters to target digital advertising budgets -- as well as a danger of ads being completely out of view to the consumer.

To prevent seasonal celebrations from descending into a nightmare, brands must ensure their budgets are invested wisely by executing refined strategies: focusing on the buys that will bring real festive cheer.

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