Opinion

‘Whitelisting is a blunt instrument in the fight against ad fraud’

Narrowing media lists is an understandable but ultimately ineffective way of keeping a brand safe online, says Rohit Kumar, of programmatic agency Infectious Media

Keeping brands safe online is beginning to resemble the foodie trend of ‘clean eating’. In the same way that people are limiting their diet to supposedly ‘clean’ and unprocessed food, marketers keen to steer their ads away from unpalatable, and in some cases, extremist content.

In addition, following numerous concerns related to ad fraud, they are encouraging their media buyers to stick to ‘white-lists’ of apparently safe digital media platforms.

These temptations are understandable: ad fraud is a multi-billion dollar business. Meanwhile the risk of having ads appearing next to violent film footage or offensive text is a very real reputational danger.

But however attractive whitelisting might seem, this strategy can also wipe away all the opportunities that programmatic buying offers, reducing audience volumes and ROI. Whitelisting has a role, but it should have a place within a wider context of online brand protection.

To avoid risky media while still keeping audiences as large as possible, transparency between advertisers and their agencies must be of paramount importance. The relationship should be resilient enough so that clients feel they can challenge their agency’s approach to risk in this area.

There are three main areas of difficulty- ad fraud, brand safety and viewability.

Safety in numbers

The irony of whitelisting is that it can actually open your brand up to fraud. Research shows that bots and fraudsters target higher quality inventory, tempted by higher cost per thousands on offer.

The key here is to mix and match the protection systems you use via more than one partner. This gives you a multi-layered approach that acts as many safety nets.

For example, using pre-bid filters should act first layer of defence, rather than post-bid. This prevents SSPs and exchanges from sending risky impressions to your DSP, stopping you bidding on them.

Systems should also be looking out for non-human traffic – bots programmed to mimic humans.

Look deeper into domains

Keeping your brand away from the darker parts of the web also means tapping into a few layers of protection. Firstly, rather than going for an entirely limited media approach in order to stay safe, question which domains are open about their audience and inventory. This first vetting stage protects brands from the risk of unsafe environments using the information you have up front.

Consider also using page crawlers to scan each page and URL to check for undesirable content.

A firewall should be the final safety net, blanking over any ads that inadvertently end up next to dubious content.

Be realistic on viewability

It’s tempting for advertisers to set high standards and insist on only paying for ads that the agency can prove were viewed. This is a nice dream, but unfortunately comes at a heavy cost to ROI.

A better approach is to think about maximising ad viewability at a more realistic level. Define an acceptable metric and then work this into how you calculate your CPMs. This will vary for everyone but you could start with the IAB’s standard of 50 per cent of pixels on screen for at least one second.

Think also about how you can create a more effective benchmark of viewability by integrating consumer action – often conversions – into the measure. In this way you are tallying which ads brought about incremental growth in actual clicks and helping yourself work out which creative or media slots were most effective.

A re-think on measurement

Countering these challenges is also prompting many advertisers to rethink some basic assumptions about digital advertising and the way we check its effectiveness.

This is primarily about taking a fresh look at our accepted metrics – prioritising CPMs, for example, can sometimes lead agencies to buy cheap inventory. This may be great for CPMs but it doesn’t do much for incremental brand value. It’s time we moved away from this exclusively value-based digital eco-system and started to take a much more intelligent look at the results of what we’re buying.

As in most other things in life there is no single perfect solution to keep a brand safe while it’s at the centre of a digital campaign. Whitelisting is the inevitable result of this year’s timely focus on ad fraud and brand safety. But it is ultimately a blunt instrument if adopted alone, rather than as part of a many-layered and robust approach to protecting a brand online.

Rohit Kumar is the interim head for Asia-Pacific at Infectious Media

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