Let’s Ensure a Reliable Ad Ecosystem When People Need it Most
We use the term ecosystem an awful lot in this industry, myself included. But that’s for a very good reason, given the connectivity of the crowded digital ad supply chain. There’s more to this ecosystem than just publishers and platforms, though. There are people at the end of the supply chain, folks that rely on what we do every day for information needed to make incredibly important decisions, especially in these extraordinarily challenging times.
Now I’m not saying we belong in the same conversation as the doctors and nurses on the frontlines of this awful pandemic. Far from it. But in our own way, we provide a critical need. People are scared, splitting time between watching the news, homeschooling their kids, and seeing their checking accounts dwindle further down. They need accurate, timely information that our industry financially supports, and we shouldn’t take our role in this situation lightly.
Consumers Want to Trust Their Favorite Brands
Where is all this coming from, you ask? I recently ran into a study from the American Association of Advertising Agencies, Consumer Sentiment Towards Brands During COVID-19. It was pretty standard fare at first, colorful data charts, precisely-written responses, all wrapped in a neat-and-tidy format that was easy on the eyes. It’s the type of thing that industry professionals run into a handful of times every day. But this one hit me a bit differently.
There was a vulnerability to the responses, a fragility. It struck me how foreign the survey questions would’ve seemed just a few weeks ago — but this is a different world now as the responses show.
- 56% of consumers are pleased to hear about brands taking proactive, positive action like making donations of goods and services in communities.
- 43% find it reassuring to hear from the brands they know and trust.
- 62.5% of millennials and Gen-Z think paid time off for employees unable to work due to closures is the most important step brands can take in response to COVID-19.
- 44% of the public aren’t comfortable venturing outside of their homes for non-essential items.
- Roughly half of people 50 and older felt information on cleaning procedures is the most important information that brands can communicate.
Like I said, it’s a different world now, maybe one that, for better or worse, will never quite return to its old ways. One thing is for certain, though – brands and the ad industry are in unfamiliar territory, and how we react is critical for everyone involved.
A Tough Road Ahead in More Ways Than One
We all know that the fraudsters don’t care what’s happening in the world. Like it or not, this global pandemic is just an extremely attractive entry point for bad actors to invade the ecosystem and wreak their particular brand havoc. And the chaos they breed through bad ads works directly in the face of the critical sense of trust the public needs so much right now.
Bad ads in their many forms – malware, forced redirects, non-compliance, data leakage – only undermine trust and brand safety, which, even under normal circumstances, is lethal for a news brand. If industry participants allow the countless tentacles of ad fraud to choke-off reliable, timely information, then we, as a community, have failed the most important members of the ecosystem – the end users looking for answers to questions they never thought they’d have to ask.
The Consequences of Inaction
So what, in my estimation, will happen in the ecosystem if companies don’t shore up their defenses against bad ads in the extremely near future? My most immediate answer is an upswing in misinformation and disingenuous sales tactics which, unfortunately, we’ve already seen. In fact, at the beginning of the crisis, Ad Lightning saw a 200% increase week-over-week in ads promoting “coronavirus” gear like face masks and hand sanitizer.
Now I’m not one to needlessly cast aspersions, but we all know that many of these ads – perhaps even most – aren’t coming from fine, upstanding companies. As an industry, we owe it to our users, the people that consume digital media, to prevent as many misleading ads as possible. In doing so, we’re also helping protect the brands people trust for vital news that, given the circumstances, could be instrumental in preserving their health and well-being.
Unfortunately, the rapid drop in demand from brands trying to figure out how to proceed, only exacerbates the issue. With CPMs falling from the sky, fraudsters now have plenty of opportunity to inject bad ads into the system. That, of course, goes a long way in explaining why we’re seeing such a dramatic rise in blocked ads over the last few weeks – the fraudsters are licking their chops. The New York Times, for example, saw blocked ads rise from 6% in February, 2020, to 36% in March. And the same thing is happening to virtually every other news brand.
So what is the consequence of inaction? Of not stopping those bad actors in their tracks? A massive, lasting spike in misinformation and malware that erodes trust, destroys brands, and puts an additional negative light on an industry that the public was already a bit suspicious of.
A Different Industry Going Forward
No matter what, there are bound to be some significant changes in the industry because of this crisis. This isn’t unique to the digital ad industry since several sectors and verticals will experience similar, permanent changes. However, if I was to play prognosticator for a moment, I’d say that the industry should expect to see:
- A surge in outsourced rev-ops companies that provide publishers with a mix of technology and services that they simply can’t refuse given so much uncertainty in the market. These companies will allow publishers to maintain lean ad ops teams while ensuring they have experienced resources monetizing their sites.
- Tier 1 publishers will see a massive increase in direct buys and PMP spend. Marketers with sufficient budgets will naturally want to control placements on news sites.
- Smart brands will realize that in the current environment, there’s an opportunity to connect with consumers and demonstrate that you “get it.” Show empathy and keep your brand in front of people who are looking for good news. The @Steak_umm twitter account is a great example. I’ve never bought Steakumms but their feed is so poignant and light-hearted that I know what they are and plan to try them.
- Consolidation in the industry always seems to be just over the horizon, but this time it actually is. Many arbitrage companies will have trouble staying afloat and will likely collapse or merge with others. Meanwhile, unhealthy SSPs & DSPs will either disappear or join forces.
- The digital ad ops role of the not-so-distant future will be remote. Yes, many ad ops teams were already remote before the crisis, but, going forward, we’ll likely see it become the industry norm.
The Bottom Line: Everyone Must Pull Their Weight
We’re at a crossroads. There’s no denying that we’ll see fundamental change in our industry as a result of this crisis. But it’s what we do between now and then that will define us as an industry. As a community. We can protect the users that rely on digital media for direction and assurance by denying fraudsters access. Enough’s enough, don’t you think?
So please don’t interpret this as an obscured pitch for ad blocking. It’s a call-to-action. It’s a plea to look at your organization, the solutions you use, and ensure that nothing slips through the cracks. We need to get this right the first time and be a stabilizing force. Every publisher and exchange, agency and advertiser, must do their part and pull their own weight.
Granted, for some companies, that could very well mean using ad blocking technology to close any doors and windows open to fraudsters. But for others, it might be something as simple as buying lunch – home-delivered, of course – for an exhausted ad ops team.
The point is, this is the time for the digital ad industry’s mettle to shine through. We can make a difference in a person’s life at a moment when they need timely, trustworthy information most. And I, for one, am proud to say that Ad Lightning is rolling up its sleeves and helping wherever we can.