Digital advertisers need to think less about the “crabgrass” and more about making sales.
No, ChoiceStream CEO Eric Bosco was not trying to convince me of the virtues of artificial lawns.
Instead, he was making an argument that today’s digital advertisers need to reassess the problems of ad viewability and traffic fraud. It’s a cost-benefit game, he is arguing, and many advertisers are missing the big picture.
“As an advertiser,” he told me, “you should be worrying about [questions like] ‘For the amount of money I’m spending, am I getting results that move the needle?’
ChoiceStream’s ad platform has a foot in the worlds of both impression- and results-based advertising. It delivers campaigns that produce an agreed-upon number of ad impressions along with a specified number of actions, such as 20,000 impressions with 1500 hotel room bookings obtained at such-and-such price per booking.
The “crabgrass” in the metaphor represents the hurdles digital ads commonly face in order to be seen by … you know … actual human eyes — and it’s marring the field on which digital ads are sown.
Google, for instance, has found that over half of digital ads are not viewable. They might be served at page bottom to viewers who don’t scroll there, for example, or only part of the ad may show on the screen for only a fraction of a second.
In cases of traffic fraud, software robots (bots), can simulate a page view or even an ad click. The advertiser might be paying $10 per thousand views, but a significant portion of those views could be from bots. According to VB Insight’s recent Mobile Advertising and Brands report, overall digital ad fraud could reach as high as $6.3 billion this year.
And, unfortunately, bots will never buy anything the advertiser is selling.
Remember way back when?
“Campaign success should not be measured exclusively by impressions,” Bosco suggested. The more an advertiser can pay for results, such as a hotel-room booking or a filled-out form with personally identifiable information, he pointed out, the less it matters how many ads were actually delivered or whether some of the traffic was from bots.
Some advertisers can minimize their exposure to unviewable ads or fake traffic by paying premium rates in marketplaces that deal only with premium publishers, or that go to great lengths to charge only for valid ads.
Bosco said advertisers need to weigh whether the costs of these cleaner environments are worth the benefit. Especially when what most advertisers really want is not for the page to load the ad, but for the user to buy the offer or fill out a form.
It should be noted that it’s odd to find ourselves considering the current state of impression-based digital advertising and its problems, given the discussion surrounding the origin of digital advertising at the end of the last century.
I remember when the Web first started catching hold in the mid-90s, and the monetization discussion — we called it “making money” then — was passionately centered around the realization that digital advertising could be different.
It wasn’t like the spray-and-pray approach of TV, radio, or print advertising, the thinking went. It could return specific, documented results from interested users.
Two current conditions provide reasons why it’s time to revisit the importance of performance-based digital ads.
How important is ‘crabgrass’?
First, viewability and fraud issues are not going away.
Even if all the formidable technical issues of ad displays could be resolved — no ad ever shown for only a fraction of a second, for instance — there are many ways that humans can purposefully or inadvertently avoid an ad impression. A click on a link might open a new page with its ads in another tab, for instance, but there’s no guarantee the user will go there.
Not to mention the growth of ad blocking, where users have more control over the ads they see.
And, unless advertisers want their messages to live inside walled gardens of selected and possibly vetted sites and apps, there is always the possibility of traffic fraud.
Second, as Bosco notes, the digital ad world lives in Before and After eras — that is, before and after programmatic platforms.
Back in the old days of digital ads, he said, advertisers would target the audiences they wanted by placing ads on the web sites they frequented. “The content of a website [was used] as a proxy for that audience,” he said.
If you were selling Callaway Golf Clubs, for instance, you could conduct an impression-based campaign on golf.com, golfchannel.com, and the like. But that was an expensive and difficult way to find enough golf-enthusiasts for a results-based campaign, because of the limited number of golf sites and because they could charge whatever they wanted.
Now, however, automated or programmatic advertising platforms and data-driven targeting makes it more economically and logistically feasible to target golf-interested users across the entire web for a campaign that more heavily emphasizes results.
The reason there are still “so many impression-based campaigns” out there, he said, “is a function of [the lack of] infrastructure out there to do measurement.” If you have more and better measurement tools such as those in his platform, Bosco contended, you’ll have more advertisers willing to add those additional measurements.
Returning to our summer-inspired metaphor, here’s the argument in short:
It’s time to figure out if “crabgrass-free” environments are worth the effort, or whether the more effective strategy is to emphasize “crabgrass-resistant” results.