You make an ad, you buy the media, and you track your metrics. But somewhere in that equation, you have to wonder if audiences are actually seeing your ad. Or more precisely, if the amount of human eyeballs that were supposed to see the ad is accurate or wildly inflated. That question, it turns out, actually encompasses several topics:
- There is the ever-popular question of banner blindness, a catchall for the ongoing concern that online audiences are ignoring ads at rates that are either frightening or terrifying.
- There's the question of click fraud, which presents a crisis for advertisers, perhaps to the tune of $6 billion.
- And then there's that recent New York Times article reporting that online video buyers are getting a lot less than they bargained for, whether because of outright fraud, audience indifference, or dodgy ad networks that place their ads on sites that should never make it onto a white list.
No matter how you define it, the "are they seeing my ads" question is a hot topic these days. Unfortunately, when you ask about it, you tend to get three types of answers, none of which are all that satisfying.
Bad answer 1: You just need better creative
I hear this one a lot in response to the question of whether or not online audiences are ignoring ads. The logic goes something like this: "Yes, audiences are ignoring ads because most ads suck. But they won't ignore your ad if the creative is awesome."
There's certainly some truth to this. Awesome creative does resonate. Smokey the Bear, for instance, has been with us for 70 years. The best radio jingles get stuck in our heads in much the same that the worst -- depending on your perspective and taste -- pop songs do. And of course, sharing and talking about Super Bowl ads is as popular as the game itself. No doubt about it: People do love great creative.
But here's the thing the "you just need better creative" crowd misses: Not all creative can be great. In fact, most of it will always suck. Here's why:
Creative resources are finite.
Sure, Don Draper isn't the only creative director in town, but it's not like top-notch creatives grow on trees.
Even if you have a great creative team, it will fail sometimes, and you won't know why.
Yes, we can and should apply data to the creative process where it makes sense to do so, but there's no way to guarantee success. If there were, you could just make a video that you know will go viral. And if you believe you can do that, I'd like to show you a bridge for sale.
It's an ad.
The nature of the content doesn't limit its potential for greatness, but it does mean the creative team steps up to the plate with two strikes against them. People want to watch a new movie or TV show. They want to find a new book or podcast. They seek out great content, but they never seek out great ads. Have you ever heard somebody say, "You know what I'm in the mood to watch? Ads." Of course you haven't.
The bar is always moving.
Even if all ads got a billion times better, we'd still have plenty of lousy ads. We're always raising the bar, and a lot of creative doesn't make the cut. Audiences grow more sophisticated by the minute. What works today may not work tomorrow simply because it's no longer novel or interesting. Great creative is a moving target, and sometimes you miss.
So should you ignore your creative? Absolutely not. But you should avoid anyone who tells you that it all comes to down to great creative. Having great creative is the least you can do. It's a tool, not a solution.
Bad answer 2: You just need better vendors
If I had a dollar for every advertising technology vendor that told me it was the only firm that's capable of making certain that only the right audiences on approved websites see a buyer's ads, I'd be able to fund my own incubator (look out, Erlich Bachman!). Sure, there's a fair amount of PR hype at work there, but I can tell you that nowhere in the space is it harder for a journalist to distinguish between firms and verify claims than in the category of ad networks, exchanges, servers, and other related vendors. No wonder you see so many articles like this, this, this, and this. And of course, this one in Ad Age, which attempts to explain why so little is being done about the shady practices running rampant in digital media buying.
We talk about the problems that plague media buying a lot, but we usually keep coming back to the same solution: better vendors. Well, here's the thing. Yes, better vendors would solve the problem. If there were no bad actors in the media buying space, everything would be hunky dory. Advertisers would be able to buy with certainty and those who sold fraud or junk would be exited from the industry faster than you could refresh your browser. But that doesn't happen, does it?
There are plenty of good, reputable vendors out there. But discovering them -- or more importantly, discovering their shady competitors -- isn't always feasible. Transparency is often in too short of a supply, the use of third parties makes it incredibly difficult to control each step in the process, and advertisers and trade press are pretty ineffective when it comes to unmasking the bad actors.
So what can you do?
Well, right now the best thing you can do is your due diligence on your vendors. In other words, with enough information and effort you stand a decent chance of protecting yourself from shady vendors. But there's always that chance of getting ripped off. I know, really satisfying answer, right?
Now, consider the industry-wide perspective. Even if you protect yourself, all advertisers still suffer. We're all swimming in polluted waters. Not that there haven't been collective attempts to clean up those waters. There has been a push to stop ad fraud. IAB chairman Vivek Shah said there is "nothing more damaging to our industry [than fraud]" at this year's annual IAB leadership meeting, adding "We've got to stop devaluing digital media. It's simple; No more traffic fraud. Let's end it."
But as Jack Marshall pointed out in Digiday, even the industry's good actors -- publishers, ad tech middlemen, and agencies -- benefit from fraudulent traffic because phony traffic still means real dollars in today's ecosystem.
"None of Shah's points will come as news to IAB meeting attendees," Marshall wrote. "The quality issues have been digital media's dirty little secret for years. What is new is the fact that the problem is now well and truly out in the open, and clients are asking more questions than ever about what it is they're actually buying. The online ad industry has a difficult decision to make: Follow Shah's advice and put an end to the problem, or risk undermining the medium entirely and kiss goodbye to the big-brand dollars it so desperately believes it deserves."
So we're at a crossroads, right? Well, hopefully we are, and hopefully we choose the right path. But realistically, it's hard to discount this industry's collective propensity to stick its head in the sand. Talking about it is an important first step, but answers like "get a better vendor" only stifle that conversation and perpetuate the problem.
Bad answer 3: Go native
There's always a third way, and digital excels at reinventing itself with new strategies that are good at making some people think they've found a holy grail. Right now, that strategy is native advertising. There's actually a lot to like about native advertising, and there are plenty of good examples of the native approach at work, including some really innovative campaigns. But at the same time, there are regulatory concerns surrounding native ads, implementation concerns, and that pesky problem of scalability. Or is the real issue quality?
There are questions surrounding native, to be sure. That's not a bad thing. What is a potentially bad thing is a widespread belief that native is the solution to the problem of audiences ignoring ads. It may very well be a solution to that problem. But one thing that digital teaches you is that there really is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution. Advertisers need a lot of tools to reach audiences these days, not one tool that supposedly can do it all. So while we should continue to track the effectiveness of native ads, we shouldn't insist that they're a panacea.
This story began in a straightforward way. My editor asked me to write about ad blindness, and we quickly agreed that it was also worth talking about fraudulent pageviews at the same time. From there, I did what I always do -- reach out to as many industry sources as possible. I got a lot of responses, but they all pretty much came down to better creative, better vendors, and native. All of those answers have their merits, but they don't really tackle the issue. We have a problem in our ecosystem. We can argue about the size of the problem and say that it's either apocalyptic or just big, but ultimately we need to start talking about solutions. So if you have any, that's what the comments section is for.
Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.
"Covering Eyes" image via Shutterstock.