I’ve long viewed display ads with a heavy degree of skepticism. Am I so biased by print’s tangibility that my disdain for online advertising clouds my judgment? I’m not sure, but knowing that I’ve rarely received any feedback on the digital ads our company has run has always made me wonder what’s really going on.
And that’s the black hole of online ads, isn’t it? You write a check and tally up the impression count to awareness building within the right target markets. But are those numbers real?
My skepticism was validated recently by an article by Suzanne Vranica in The Wall Street Journal
entitled, “The Case of the Invisible Web Ads
.” The title got me excited, too!
Vranica reports that “54 percent of online display ads shown in ‘thousands’ of campaigns measured by comScore Inc. between May of 2012 and February of this year weren’t seen by anyone.” To qualify as an impression, at least 50 percent of an ad had to be visible for at least one second. Three factors may be contributing to this “invisibility,” and all three have real-world, offline precedents. They are 1) technical glitches, 2) user habits, and 3) fraud.
In our world of direct mail, a technical glitch might be a pressman who pulls a piece out of the delivery as a QC check without scanning it so it can be replaced later. But in that case, the mail owner doesn’t pay for the postage or the print. Given the ephemeral nature of online, and the poor verification methods supporting the industry, marketers don’t have the recourse or even the awareness of the actuality of the delivery to expect recompense. User habits—in the direct mail world—might be the recipient who doesn’t like direct mail and simply recycles the contents of their mail box without even a glimpse of what’s inside. In this instance, online and offline both suffer, but that’s life: wrong channel, part of the game, move on.
As for the third bucket, malicious software is the new “bricks in the mailbag.” In these cases, ads can be served up to fake visitors, or they “can be hidden behind a window on a Website that is the size of a pencil point,” according to comScore. I’ve heard of things like this, and living in Chicago, I grew up with reports of ancient mail bags found in the cellars or under the stairs of mail carriers decades after they passed away. All of this happened, but it doesn’t now.
Today, we have IMBs (intelligent mail barcodes), seeds, and mail tracking systems that enable us to share delivery details with mail owners in real time. And for those Web ads, they’re still working on the reporting. Google has teams working on tools to measure and remove fake Web traffic, but it cannot measure many of the ads, nor has it overcome the challenges posed by smartphones and tablets. Progress is being made, but much of the fraud has yet to be rooted out.
So, are marketers upset that 54 percent of their $14 billion in online display ads isn’t being seen by real humans? You might think so. You might even think they’d be so upset about the $7.5 billion heist that they’d send in the muscle, break some kneecaps, and send people off to sleep with the fishes.
Maybe that’s a bit over the top, but this revelation of fraud and deceit is an opportunity for us as an industry. We’re left with the argument of the old friend, the tried and true workhorse that won’t let you down. We might take our lumps every now and then, but we’re loyal to our craft, perhaps sometimes to a fault. We deliver, and neither rain nor sleet nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds (except perhaps on Saturday, but that’s another post, so to speak).