Marketers must get a handle on ad fraud to safeguard spend

It is increasingly hard for marketers to identify which activity is real and which is fake

Speaking at the World Federation of Advertisers’ conference last month, Unilever’s outgoing chief marketing officer, Keith Weed, announced that Unilever will tighten up its vetting of publishers in a bid to reduce ad fraud.

Ad fraud is a booming industry, especially on mobile. As devices, channels and platforms proliferate, user consumption patterns have evolved - and the threats from bad actors are evolving too.

While the move from Unilever is welcomed and much needed, it is only one solution. There is so much more to be done, and bold action must be taken to combat advertising fraud.

Ad fraud has grown very sophisticated at a rapid scale and is fast becoming a multibillion-pound industry. Fraudsters are becoming more advanced, often using bots that can mimic the behaviour of how real users interact with their smartphones and mobile devices.

Because this engagement appears genuine, it is increasingly hard for marketers to identify which activity is real and which is fake.

Fake clicks and fraudulent activity are interfering with metrics, and not matching up to actual figures and revenues. By implementing multi-layer security, advertisers can put in place measures to spot and counteract the growing threat from the fraudulent activity quicker.

Understanding the threat

Google recently announced it had removed 2.3bn ‘bad ads’ to tackle ad fraud. To see one of the biggest tech companies take proactive measures to combat these malicious activities is reassuring.

As fraudsters continue investing heavily to learn how real users behave, they will continue to scam companies and pocket increasingly large payouts as a result. This is achieved by acquiring apps and making real in-app purchases to boost this deception.

A prominent concern for the industry is the manipulation of important and sensitive data. Fraud contaminates crucial data and insights that businesses rely on to make decisions.

The longer the threat lingers, the greater the strain on the resources, relationships and trust between brands and their marketing partners. If strong trust does not exist with partners and consumers, or in the information used to make data-driven decisions, the entire business model is at risk.

Protecting ad spend

If we relate online fraud to that of our homes, both feature several layers of protection. A combination of locks, security codes, alarm systems, gates even pets help ward off home invaders before they can cause harm.

Marketers’ livelihoods in the age of fraud require a comprehensive approach to security and fortification, similar to the security measures taken to protect our homes. From an awareness of the different threat practices to the implementation of cutting-edge technologies to analyse user behaviour, businesses can identify emerging patterns to flag suspicious activity to block attacks.

Unilever aims to “add more rigour” to how its brands advertise online. Marketers need to follow suit and remain vigilant by keeping on top of the latest trends and vulnerabilities being exploited. Businesses need to support their teams so marketers can leverage data sets and tools with machine-learning and artificial intelligence to identify threats, giving them the power to fight back.

Establishing a ‘culture of vigilance’

Behavioural analysis can examine activity to better understand complex patterns and flag potentially problematic cases. For example, do the devices from which a site’s traffic come from tend to be static?

That could be a tell-tale sign of a “device farm,” which are on the rise and have become very advanced and often go undetected. Or, has there been an unusual event, like an app install taking place within seconds of an ad appearing? Despite huge jumps in traffic, do many of these users actually convert? These are the questions marketers should be asking.

It makes sense then that marketers become intimately familiar with their own key performance indicators (KPIs). If not, they risk difficulty recognising fraudulent versus legitimate activity. Protecting campaign KPIs from fraudulent activity is essential as each layer of protection – from a heightened level of awareness to being smart about measuring the right metrics – to fight all levels of fraudulent activity.

The costs will be astronomical if bold action isn’t taken. The World Federation of Advertisers forecasts that, by 2025, fraudulent activity will be costing businesses £38 billion annually. That equates to millions of ad spend being flushed away each day. Failure to meet the ad fraud threat head-on will carry consequences that extend far beyond billions of pounds in stolen revenue each year.

Considering how rapidly fraud has evolved, it is increasingly important for marketers to react by identifying potential weaknesses in defences and, most importantly, build a culture of vigilance. Ad fraud didn’t emerge overnight.

And, with bots now accounting for the majority of mobile ad fraud, it won’t suddenly disappear, either. One of the biggest threats to our industry, ad fraud has the potential to do irrevocable damage. The sooner leadership teams take a leaf out of Keith Weed’s book and implement measures to combat the issue, the better off all marketers, brands and consumers will be.

Paul Wright is managing director UK and EMEA for AppsFlyer

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