THEY SAY CONTENT IS king. But in an age of surplus content, it’s the content curators and collators like Google and Facebook—or, in some cases, content scam artists like online ad networks and ‘ghost publishers’ fraudulently selling ad impressions on sites that are very thin on content but very high on traffic—that seem to be wearing the crown at the moment.
Sim Ahmed’s story on New Zealand’s digital publishing scene shows just how difficult it is for traditional publishers to make money in this space (every dog has its day, of course, and it pays to remember newspapers have had a pretty good run of it up until relatively recently). There are a rare few success stories, predominantly publishers catering to a niche audience, but it’s tough. And a lot of that toughness relates to the state of online advertising.
In general, the promise of interactivity, measureability and precision targeting the online realm purported to offer when banner ads first arrived in the early ‘90s ( HotWired, the precursor to Wired, was one of the first publishers to get in on the act) has not really eventuated. Almost 30 years on and click-through rates are ridiculously low, the vast majority of online executions are still seen as annoyances, display space is cheap due to a glut of supply, and, as a series of stories that ran in Adweek recently showed, ad buyers who are pouring millions of dollars into online display advertising in the US often can’t tell if the audience it’s paying for is even human.
According to a recent ComScore study reported in The Wall St. Journal, “54 percent of online display ads … between May of 2012 and February of this year weren’t seen by anyone” and a significant number of display ad impressions were based on fake traffic. The same could possibly be said of other media, of course, and the old quip from John Wanamaker is still just as relevant: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”
Like many industries before it (witness Operation Edit, which led to six arrests for an invoice scam that sold ads in non-existent magazines), the internet is rife with shysters and snake-oil salesmen. And they are employing a range of sophisticated tricks to profit from the shift to digital, like malicious software that makes websites think someone is actually on a page, bots that visit both advertisers’ sites and publishers’ sites to fool retargeting algorithms, or pages that load in browser windows the size of a pixel.
As the introduction to the Adweek story says: “If you spend enough time in the murky world of ad exchanges, ad tech middlemen and real-time bidding software, you might come away wondering why any major brand even bothers with online advertising.”
They bother, of course, because that’s where they believe the customers are. The industry is buying audiences for clients, the quest for impressions and clicks means the data is often being misused to gauge performance and the swindlers are making hay while the sun shines. So, to dredge up an oft-used Einstein quote: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
At a time when ‘Big Data’ is meant to offer unparalleled insights into consumers’ behaviour, it does seem slightly ironic that marketers and agencies, as the Ad Contrarian so eloquently says, “can’t even figure out that they’re getting fucked blind by the online ad hustlers who are selling them this garbage”. And while legitimate publishers probably aren’t laughing at this turn of events given their bogus brethren are stealing potential revenue, there may be an element of schadenfreude about the fact that some advertisers seem to be chucking their money down the drain.
This ‘murky world’ doesn’t have to be quite as murky, of course. Like drug cheats in sport, or hackers with nefarious intent, there will presumably always be what the Adweek story calls an arms race between the forces of good and evil. And that’s where trust comes in to the equation. If you’re going direct to a trusted publisher, or if you’re confident you’re buying a quality audience from a trusted network, then online display advertising is as legitimate as any other medium for showing off what you have to offer. Caveat emptor usually applies to consumers. But these days it also applies to advertisers.