New Zealand Marketing - - Contents -

Bad medicine

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.

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