Let’s say you buy a 15-second pre-roll ad for a contrast spot that incorporates some of the best oppo the campaign’s research team dug up. It’s geo-targeted on YouTube and running on local news websites the week before a crucial debate.
Expectations are high. The views shoot up into the thousands, then the tens of thousands. The completion rate is phenomenal — nearly 90 percent. “We’ve gone viral,” you announce during a staff meeting. There’s just one problem. You haven’t. Some of those viewers have been robots (you can’t tell which ones) and robots don’t vote.
It’s a scenario that frightens political consultants. Bots, as they’re known, aren’t the stuff of science fiction anymore. In fact, right now they’re racing across the Internet from malware-infected web browsers viewing ads, skewing traffic numbers and draining advertising budgets. In some cases, they’re inflating a website’s traffic by as much as 50 percent.
This is ad fraud, which is plaguing the digital advertising industry. The corporate world has already begun taking the problem seriously, considering that it comes with a multi-billion dollar price tag attached. Advertisers stand to lose $6.3 billion in 2015 to bots, according to one study. But the campaign industry has been slower to mobilize and there’s some debate over what consultants can really do about the problem. If left unchecked, it could damage the credibility of digital media firms, but an aggressive response could be just as startling to potential clients.
A Problem Growing In Scale
Bots don’t have a human at the controls. They’re governed by automated computer programs that tell them which digital content to consume. They’re like the Roombas of the Internet, rolling over pages, watching videos, even clicking on those annoying online pop-ups. The bots deliver fraudulent data to marketers while costing them serious dough.
“The worst case scenario is if the ad campaign you're running is directed at sites with a lot of bot activity, those ads will go unseen,” says Tim Lim, president of Precision Network, a digital media firm. “That's money down the drain. You have lost an opportunity to connect with the voters.”
It’s a terrifying prospect for campaigns that are pouring money into engaging voters online. “Anyone who doesn't have a solution against fraud and viewability against a candidate who does is going to have a significant disadvantage,” says Elliot Hirsch, CEO of AdYapper, which helps ensure its clients’ ads are being trafficked by humans. Digital advertisers get that it’s a problem they can’t ignore.
“There's not a bigger challenge facing the digital advertising industry than tackling the fraud issue,” says Mike Zaneis, executive vice president and general counsel for the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB). “Allowing criminal activity at such a mass scale in our industry erodes trust in the buyer. They are beginning to question whether it's worth getting into the digital ad game.”
Several observers credit organized crime, coming from overseas, for the rise of the bots and subsequent online ad fraud. A Senate report released last year said the surge of online advertising has brought in cybercriminals looking to spread malware to unsuspecting computers, calling it “malvertising.”
Tom Phillips, CEO of Dstillery, a digital ad agency, compared the problem to the drug trade. “The drugs are made somewhere else; the bots are made somewhere else,” he says. “It infects browsers. And it then starts doing things in that browser that you don't know about.”
Bots can, according to a study by the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and White Ops, “coast on the credentials of the real users of the computers they hijack.” They can replicate human actions like, say, hovering the mouse cursor over ads or putting items in an online shopping cart. They can create web histories that can trick advertisers into thinking they’ve found genuine consumers. Ad fraud costs companies money but it’s even more costly for campaigns, which can lose votes too.
“The symptoms of ad bots are the number of people who are seeing your ads is not what you think it is. So trying to optimize off that traffic might not work because it might not even be human traffic,” says Shannon Lee, director of digital advertising at Precision Strategies, a Democratic firm. “It's an increasing problem that most campaigns don't know they have.”
Campaigns are increasingly data driven and the selling point of digital ads is that they give campaigns granular detail about their viewership. Spending decisions are made off that data.
But if your database is infected with fraudulent data, you’ll get those decisions wrong, says Phillips. “Your data science might be good but if your data is polluted, then your data science is worthless. That's more insidious.”
Campaigns Must Become Educated Buyers
Buying digital ads is a complex process. It involves various parties, ad networks, and software so it’s not surprising that there’s confusion over where ads end up on the vast World Wide Web.
“A lot of campaigns don't know where their ads are running,” says Lim, who has worked on several successful Democratic campaigns, including President Obama’s 2012 reelection bid.
Moreover, online ads could also be running on sites that are rarely visited by real people. “If you don't have some methods in place, your banners are going to be on websites that are not viewed by humans,” says Keegan Goudiss, a partner at Revolution Messaging.
Control over where digital ads run is key for campaigns. Take the kerfuffle last October over allegations that the National Rifle Association ran ads in support of now-Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on Grindr, a gay men’s dating app.
“It's not necessarily a fraudulent placement but it's a placement that doesn't necessarily serve your campaign. Someone in Arkansas is going to ask why this Republican is advertising on a gay men's app,” Goudiss says. “There's no way they wanted to be on that site.”
It turned out those ads may have never made it onto the dating site after all. After images of the supposed Cotton ad grabbed national press attention, BuzzFeed reported that a firm advertising for Cotton on behalf of the NRA determined the ad was fake. Further, the mobile app, after contacting its outside ad networks, concluded that no such ad ever ran. The whole episode played out during the midterm campaign season’s frantic closing days and demonstrated how challenging it is to track digital advertising.
Online ad fraud, says Michael Beach, co-founder of Targeted Victory, has been confused with the bigger issue of all forms of media going unseen.
“It is a problem for current campaigns, but people are combining viewability and fraud (bots) into a single problem,” Beach says in an email. “These are two different issues with different solutions. Viewability is a problem for all mediums (DVRs, people going to the bathroom during commercial breaks, etc.) which nobody talks about.”
To conceptualize this problem in the digital space, think of a series of billboards placed along a quiet country road. “There's too much ad space out there that no one is looking at but advertisers are paying millions of dollars to use,” says Lim, the Democratic digital strategist. “Online ad fraud is not just about bots.”
Consultants should value digital ads for their effectiveness in engaging voters not for how many they can buy.
“These consultants need to become experts and partner with technology companies and independent vendors to push against the industry's motivation to just sell media,” says Hirsch, whose company AdYapper has worked with several campaigns in rooting out online ad fraud. “Instead of saying you’re just going to buy a billion ads, say you’re going to buy a hundred thousand votes, or a thousand signups to my newsletter. Go for measurable goals.”
While campaigns are relying on their vendors and consultants to help beat the bots, corporations have formed a more concerted effort. The major advertising trade groups IAB, ANA and the American Association of Advertising Agencies have created the Trustworthy Accountability Group. The cross-industry coalition wants to end bot traffic and fight back against malware to help end online ad fraud.
“The entire industry has come together in a very serious way to combat these issues,” says Zaneis, the IAB attorney.
The biggest vendors of digital advertising have sounded alarm bells on their own as well. Google released its own study last year that shocked industry observers: Humans did not see 56.1 percent of online ads. The Silicon Valley giant based its report off of data collected from Google’s and DoubleClick’s display advertising platforms in July and October 2014.
Google, which purchased anti-malware company spider.io last year, has sought to root out bad advertising practices and invest in technology to boost ads’ viewability. Others in the tech world have taken notice, too. Microsoft monitors its traffic and looks for “fraudulent patterns” to find and stop ad fraud.
Digital ad companies themselves are also on the lookout for bots. “We are trying to sell media clean, not polluted,” says Phillips, whose firm’s clients have included well-known corporate brands such as Allstate, Citibank, Verizon and Williams-Sonoma. Phillips and his firm look for malware and bot traffic when they run their ad campaigns online.
“On behalf of our clients, we try to detect site overlaps. In other words, sites that have high usage together that shouldn't have high usage together,” Phillips says. “We then try to find the infected browsers and then put those infected browsers in the penalty box so we're not using data from them.”
Know What to Ask Your Vendor
Campaigns don’t need the resources of a Fortune 500 corporation to root out bots. They can start by probing their vendors to ensure they know where their ads are running and who’s seeing them.
“Demand transparency. If you don't know where your ads are running, ask. That's the half of the battle, just asking for the information,” says Lim. “When you don't know where the ads are running, and you have to base it off the word of the agency, that's troublesome.”
Test your audience as well. “Incorporate online surveying with the ad campaign, which will help you measure the true impact of the ad campaign and detect signs of online ad fraud,” Lim says. “The ads get served and then 24 or 48 hours later, the person is then served a survey about the ad's message to gauge how effective it was.”
Lim also emphasized utilizing quality inventory for digital ads like “owned and operated ad space” such as YouTube.
Less diligent firms might not be aware that they’re being victimized by ad fraud, says Lee, the Democratic digital strategist. She says campaigns should also consider hiring an outside party to verify traffic and identify bots. “It’s an added cost but it could save them a lot of money in the long run.”
Some consulting firms have built their own software, known as demand-side platforms, which can find ad space that fits their clients’ specifications while being wary of bots. Revolution Messaging has built Revere for such a purpose.
Beach, a former senior Republican National Committee aide, says his firm uses centralized data to compare media sources and shift funds away from those not performing up to snuff.
“This type of analysis will help to correct any problem since the lower quality inventory will be removed from supply lists,” he says, noting Targeted Victory also frequently runs analyses on its data models to make sure they're reaching voters.
"For example, we ran a ton of GOTV ads in 2014 to an audience that our models said were base Republicans," says Beach. "We had almost one million uniques go through a platform (Targeted GOTV) that we built and own, which matched voters (with their permission) to the voter file. We were able to see what percentage were [Republican], [independent] and [Democratic], which was just one of several research points that validated our audiences."
You can forgive traditional media consultants for having a bit of fun when talking about the growing problem of digital ad fraud. With television audiences fragmenting and digital advertising cutting into campaign media budgets, strategists who primarily focus on the more traditional side of the spectrum are quick to point out that they don’t have to worry about malware and bots.
“In buying traditional media, we're not worried about marauding robots out there watching television sets,” says Mark Putnam, president of Putnam Partners, a Democratic political media consulting firm. “This is not a problem we face when buying traditional media, whether it's broadcast, cable or radio, where you are buying specific programming.”
Traditional media buying, he adds, “is extremely targeted and with big data, you can refine it further.” While Putnam says there is clear value in online media, “it’s still a new frontier.”
Digital consultants remain bullish, despite the growing concern over bots.
“While this is a weakness of digital [online ad fraud], it's also a strength because with TV ads there is no way to tell if anyone is watching,” says Goudiss. “You are moving to a place where a campaign is only going to pay for guaranteed video views, guaranteed banner displays. Compare that to TV, where there can be no guarantee.”
Billions are now spent on digital ads, and the market continues to grow every quarter. IAB has said Internet advertising revenues reached $12.4 billion in the third quarter of 2014 — the highest quarter ever. It’s predicted to reach $52.8 billion in 2015, according to Strategy Analytics. Zaneis says consumers are spending more and more time online even while sitting in front of the television or listening to the radio.
“The time spent with digital media versus traditional media is why, even with the challenges in digital media, that the ad spend continues to grow in digital,” Zaneis says. “The data is incredibly rich. It can help inform all of your other spending on media.”
But whether those spending decisions are made wisely depends on the validity of the data. “If you wait and just collect results at the end, you're too late,” says Hirsch. “The ideal set up is not just have a vendor measuring this data but one who can make it actionable for these campaigns. They can't afford to wait another day.”
Kevin Bogardus covers agencies for Environment & Energy Publishing. He lives in Washington, D.C.