Back in the old-fashioned days of dead-tree media, marketers had a curious little habit of demanding to know that the advertising information provided by publications and ad networks was, you know, not full of crap. Today, we just accept whatever they tell us.
The latest example is Facebook overestimating for years the average video ad viewing time by as much as 80 percent. This misinformation would not have existed for so long back when marketers were logical and rational.
For more than sixty years, newspapers and magazines have submitted information including print runs and financial records to organizations such as Verified Audit Circulation and the Alliance for Audited Media — which would then check (and when necessary adjust) the circulation numbers. The publications would then put these approved numbers in their advertising kits.
The benefit to everyone was obvious. Advertisers felt more comfortable that their advertisements would reach the stated number of people. The newspapers and magazines could themselves advertise that their figures were approved by industry authorities — thereby instilling more trust from potential business partners.
Now, newspapers are merely advertising vehicles that have articles alongside the ads. Search engines and social networks are advertising vehicles that have search results and personal messages alongside the ads.
But we all know that Google, Facebook, and every other advertising network will surely never voluntarily allow independent third parties to review their ad platforms and financial data. Why would they? It’s not like they would ever risk exposing proprietary information (at best) or having someone shine a light on any massive data manipulation (at worst). No companies are going to stop online advertising en masse anytime soon.
Or will they?
The main selling points of Internet advertising compared to traditional advertising have always been these two premises:
“You can’t really know how many people saw your advertisement in a newspaper or on TV. You can know exactly how many people saw your online advertisement!”
“Targeting a set of specific individuals provides a better return on investment than reaching a broad demographic group.”
What would happen to countless social media networks, ad networks, and even Google itself if both premises turned out to be false?
First, it may be more difficult to know how many people viewed an online advertisement than a TV or print one. As I wrote in a lengthy guide to online advertising fraud on Moz, the entire Internet advertising industry is filled with untold and incalculable levels of bot traffic, click fraud, viewability problems, publisher fraud, and kickbacks to ad agencies and media buyers. It’s a bigger collective issue than someone going to the bathroom during a commercial break and not seeing an advertisement.
Second, a lot of online advertising is ineffective by comparison — just ask Procter & Gamble — because it is not really creative advertising but rather crass, direct-response marketing. Bob Hoffman, the retired ad agency CEO who has written about this ad industry problem for years, quotes journalist Doc Searls to say that display advertising is actually “tracking-aimed junk mail that only looks like ads.”
No wonder that online ad blocking is becoming so popular. Not only is digital advertising sleazy and annoying — it’s often just plain ineffective and inaccurate as well. As an Internet marketing speaker on ad fraud and other topics, I recently give a presentation at MozCon on how the data that is generated by client-side scripts such as Google Analytics is wrong.
The same is often true for almost every online advertising and analytics platform. As we at AI-powered log analysis software platform Logz.io write, it may often be better to use the open source ELK Stack (Elasticsearch, Logstash, and Kibana) to analyze Salesforce, do server log audits for technical SEO, and other marketing analytics activities.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Suzanne Vranica and Mike Shields summarize the issue perfectly:
Marketers who have been pouring huge sums into digital advertising are wrestling with several recent events that add to a troubling picture: some are finding they can’t be sure how well that money was spent or what they’ve received in return for it.
Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson is a little more blunt (language warning):
This little [Facebook video view length] debacle once again confirms that nobody actually knows what the fuck is going on with digital media. From the shadowy box of turds and spiders that is programmatic to the increasingly complex and deluded world of digital views, the idea that digital marketing is more analytical and attributable than other media is clearly horseshit.
Never blindly accept what any for-profit company tells you. I was a journalist before I was a marketer, and the first thing you learn in journalism school is this: “Follow the money.”
Google, Facebook, and every other online ad network: I call on you to submit all of the operational and financial data from your ad platforms over the prior calendar year to independent, third-party auditors who have no financial or other stake in the resulting reviews.
In the end, we will all be better for it.
This post is part of our contributor series. It is written and published independently of TNW.
This post is part of our contributor series. The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily shared by TNW.
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