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What brands need to know about avoiding digital advertising's festive fraudsters

From Singles Day to Black Friday, Thanksgiving to Christmas, Q4 is a key consumer retail period, but also offers many opportunities for fraudsters to target digital advertising budgets.

In recent years we’ve seen various fraudulent scams uncovered around this time of year, with Methbot in December 2016 and Hyphbot revealed in November 2017. In fact, this quarter we’ve already seen Publicis-backed Matomy's warning that digital advertising is “threatened by rapidly growing fraudulent traffic,” while BuzzFeed broke news of a sophisticated Android ad fraud scheme that allegedly stole millions from advertisers.

And it’s not all media hype. Across the 2017 festive season, UK campaigns showed fraudulent activity rose significantly the week of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, as well as New Years. Looking at video campaigns specifically, ad fraud levels rose dramatically around New Years, with approximately 40% of video inventory at risk. As a benchmark over the festive season, ad fraud levels for desktop hit 0.8% whereas video came in at 1.5%.

But despite fraudsters’ efforts, the holiday season is still an attractive prospect for digital advertisers. In 2017, daily impression volumes peaked at the end of November to over 100 million display impressions, almost 60 million mobile impressions, and five million video impressions. That’s a lot of eyeballs on those festive ad campaigns.

Digital marketers shouldn’t be scared off by the media’s focus on sensational scams, instead focusing on insights around potential ad fraud levels and impression volumes to gauge supply levels and influence budget allocations.

Fraudulent activity such as click fraud, ad stacking, domain spoofing, pixel stuffing, and fake bot traffic is expected to cost $50bn globally by 2025. Viewability is also a significant concern – with a 53% rate of desktop viewability across the UK 2017 holiday season – meaning just under half are failing to meet industry standards. Equally brand safety continues to be an issue, with ads at risk of being placed alongside violent, adult or otherwise inappropriate content.

However, the industry is steadily improving, and working hard to build a safe and transparent digital ecosystem for all. Looking at a wider timeframe, UK desktop display viewability rose 19% since H2 2017, for example, while brand safety risk for display ads fell from 5.8% to 4.5% in H1 2018. Brands can maintain this momentum through a robust and continually refined media quality strategy, resulting in a prosperous and sustainable digital advertising landscape.

The goal has to be to get digital advertising to the same level as traditional advertising channels – where ad fraud, brand safety, and viewability are much smaller or even non-existent threats. Brands advertising via print media, for example, can be sure their ad is viewable and see exactly where it is placed in the wider page context. Digital advertisers need the same assurance, to invest with confidence and know campaigns are protected from media quality threats.

Using a combination of measurement technologies and methodologies, such as the Open Measurement SDK and industry measurement guidelines, brands can ensure quality impressions are not only identified, but also blocked against threats before ad spend is wasted. They can tailor quality metrics to their own specific needs, for instance by assessing risk at page level using text, links, and URLs, brands can set their own safety thresholds. Or for marketers looking for higher quality media in programmatic, pre-bid targeting segments can be implemented for viewability and ad fraud.

Ultimately, brands can gain control over the quality of their ad placements, using real-time data insights to make better-informed decisions that focus efforts on growth and sustainability. Using the insights, brands can understand supply issues and immediately direct budgets towards safe, engaging, and viewable impressions: maximising return on investment (ROI) and minimising wastage.

As the 2018 festive season gathers momentum there’s sure to be a continuous stream of ad fraud or quality-related stories in the media. But instead of getting distracted, advertisers must maintain an all-encompassing approach to media quality, utilising insights to optimise campaign performance, and preparing for a happy holiday season.

Nick Morley is EMEA managing director at Integral Ad Science

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