A story just appeared in BuzzFeed News titled "The Publisher of Newsweek and The International Business Times Has Been Buying Traffic And Engaging In Ad Fraud." The story looks at the work of a company called Social Puncher, a consulting firm that investigates online ad fraud, and an analysis done of advertising for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (a U.S. government agency) that ran on the digital platform of the International Business Times (whose parent is the Newsweek Media Group).
According to the BuzzFeed News story, "At the core of Social Puncher's report is the finding that the audience on IBT that saw CFPB's ads was disproportionally made up of cheap traffic purchased from ad networks. The traffic is generated via pop-up or pop-under browser windows on file sharing and pirated video streaming websites."
The report itself alleges "a massive purchase of traffic" and "concealment of traffic buying." It also states that "among the traffic sources, there are sites that have obvious repetitive anomalies of audience behavior, claiming that most of their traffic is artificial."
The concept of sourced traffic, or traffic sourcing (any method by which digital media sellers acquire visitors through third parties), is unique to digital advertising. Television media companies do not "source" traffic. Print media companies do not "source" traffic. So why is this such a common and unchallenged practice in digital media?
Sourced traffic can be problematic for many reasons:
- Marketers are often unaware that their digital media buys include sourced traffic.
- Since the sourced traffic audience is a step or more removed from a publisher's organic audience, the quality of such traffic could be inferior.
- Sourcing traffic results in an alarmingly high level of bot fraud, i.e., non-human traffic. According to the most recent ANA/White Ops Bot Baseline report, there was 3.6 times as much fraud coming from sourced traffic than non-sourced traffic.
- Media companies can arbitrage sourced traffic. A media company can buy traffic from a third party for one price and then sell it back to the advertiser for a higher price.
ANA encourages advertisers to take the following action steps:
- Be Aware, Ask Questions. Advertisers must be aware of sourced traffic. Work closely with your media agency and media partners to clearly understand the use of sourced traffic in your media schedule.
- Request Transparency. Buyers should request transparency from publishers around traffic sourcing and build language into RFPs and insertion orders that requires publishers to identify all third-party sources of traffic.
- Request Reporting from Agencies. Marketers need to hold their media agencies accountable for reporting and analytics, and such reporting should include sourced traffic.
- Set Reasonable Campaign Goals. Advertisers should set reasonable campaign goals for audience delivery. With overly aggressive goals, sellers may not have the organic inventory available to fulfill the targets and might then turn to traffic sourcing.
- Pay Particular Attention to Mid- and Long-Tail Publishers. When looking at sourced traffic from a risk perspective advertisers should pay particular attention to mid-and long-tail publishers, as they are more likely to have issues with sourced traffic, given their smaller audiences.
- Have Guidelines on Sourced Traffic. Advertisers should consider having formal, written guidelines on sourced traffic that are shared with agencies and all media companies. Such guidelines could set rules about what good/bad practices of publishers are and could even prohibit sourced traffic or limit it under certain circumstances.
- Support TAG's Certified Against Fraud Program: TAG launched this to combat invalid traffic in the digital advertising supply chain. The program includes the Publisher Sourcing Disclosure Requirements (PSDR) which foster trust in the marketplace by disclosing the amount of sourced traffic for a given publisher.
In an era where marketers continue to have transparency concerns related to their advertising investments, sourced traffic serves as a contributing factor in the erosion of trust in the digital supply chain. Let the buyer beware.
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