Ad fraud might be as much your fault as it is the fraudsters’

Ad fraud is a symptom of a larger problem in digital marketing, and it has an obvious solution, writes Sabri Suby.

Digital media spending is on the rise. In 2018, it’ll represent 44% of all ad spend globally. By 2020 it’ll be 50%, about US$291 billion, according to media agency Magna. But what worries me is that there are too many people out there who don’t understand what they’re buying, which means a whole chunk of wasted budget.

There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, too many CMOs don’t understand ad tech. That’s the word from CEO of MDC Media Partners Martin Cass, formerly of Carat, who said: “If you sat down with a CMO and really asked him what most of the ad tech does, they wouldn’t have a clue.” He went on to mention “an enormous lack of trust” in the industry and cited Group M’s Irwin Gotlieb: “Where there’s confusion, there’s opportunities to make money.”

It won’t surprise you to learn that all these things are related. Any rapidly growing industry will have businesses that take advantage of clients’ lack of education. Many of them survive for years not doing a great job, thanks to the lag between fast industry growth and a general understanding of true return on investment.

Ignorance has allowed ad fraud to flourish, because clients aren’t sure what they’re paying for. We laugh at how the elderly get sucked into phone scams, yet we let the digital marketing equivalent happen every day to supposedly highly trained, intelligent marketing professionals.

In fact, before ad fraud became a hot topic and serious cause for concern, there was a bigger money pit that is still going on today and affecting the effectiveness of online advertising: a lack of conversions and measurement of results.

That brings me to my second point. The digital marketing measurements that allow ad fraud to exist are fundamentally flawed. Impressions, clicks, likes, shares, follows and all those vanity metrics don’t mean a thing unless the ad converts. Perhaps part of the reason ad fraud continues is because clients are happy to hear vanity metrics rather than require actual results.

Conversion is everything

Avoid ad fraud with effective marketing. Real results come from building a sales funnel and tracking how potential customer move along it from traffic to lead and from lead to converted customer. If more marketing agencies did this, you’d see ad fraud drop off and demand for actual results climb. You’d also see more businesses reinvesting their returns on digital marketing investments back into their digital campaigns.

Start by stepping away from the vanity metrics. You may have heard the old adage, treat the disease, not the symptoms. In this case, by attacking the symptoms you can treat the disease. Vanity metrics are a symptom of ad fraud. When marketing professionals don’t see the revenue results they thought they would, they do some window dressing by quoting the best (albeit meaningless) numbers instead of admitting there is an issue. This allows ad fraud to persist. Ad fraud requires feeders to survive. Those who insist the numbers mean something, are feeders. So if you detect something wrong with your digital strategy, fix it. Cut off the supply at the source. Move on. If everyone had the guts to do this, ad fraud would quickly become a non-issue.

The fix is measuring return on investment through conversion metrics. If you’re not making money from your spend, what are you paying for? Without accountability for your expenditure, something is functionally wrong.

So, track everything! Ecommerce should be a gift to marketers. Compared to offline marketing, it’s much easier to know which ads are converting. You can follow the buyer all the way through their purchase journey.

The perception that this is old school compared to quoting lead statistics is part of the problem. If the lead stats are unreliable, you’re not going to have the faintest idea whether your marketing is working.

Avoid the rush for results

Another problem is that CMOs want results fast. The average tenure of marketing chiefs has dropped, according to CMO, so the pressure to deliver quickly is high. But when you’re dealing with conversion metrics, teasing out the important stuff takes time. In the meantime, many CMOs rely on vanity metrics to make their results look good.

This is not a good long-term strategy, and vanity metrics are only useful as indicators of progress – but should be not considered the end result of any campaign. Instead of puffing up vanity metrics, spend that time on achieving the metrics that matter the most.

The solution is to start a shift in the industry to change the culture from one of urgent, yet fraudulent numbers to genuine results, actual return on investment. If more digital marketing agencies started achieving real results, more clients would start to demand it and spend will continue to rise. Only then can we leave ad fraud behind and focus on what digital marketing is supposed to achieve: real results.

Sabri Suby is the founder and head of growth at King Kong, a digital marketing agency.


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