The online advertising ecosystem is impossibly complex. Today, I will try to provide a highly simplified overview written for non-media-savvy, non-tech-savvy readers. The idea is to give civilians like copywriters, marketing managers, and auto dealers a big-picture view of the online display ad environment and a point of view on its pitfalls. I have tried my best to write it in plain English and make it so simple even a CEO can understand it.
As a copywriter, I am not an expert on media buying so be warned. To account for that, I have bounced this off some digital media experts who have assured me that it is as accurate as you can reasonably expect from a dumbass blogger. This is excerpted from my forthcoming book "Delusional: How Marketers Waste Billions on Fraud and Fairy Tales" which will be published later this year. Okay, here we go...
There are basically two ways to buy online display advertising.“...We keep feeding the beast by pouring incredible sums of money into this unproductive, unmanageable abyss. Remarkably, we keep doing so even though we know that only 25 percent of every digital dollar reaches the consumer. … [that] represents more than $20 billion in marketing waste, inefficiency and ineffectiveness.” Bob Liodice, CEO, Association of National Advertisers
- Contextually — Buying “contextually" means you buy the old-fashioned way. If you’re trying to reach golfers, you buy ads on the Golf Digest website. The context of the website determines the buying criteria.
- Behaviorally — Buying behaviorally means you don’t buy ads on a specific website, you follow presumed golfers wherever they go on the web and buy ads wherever they land e.g., a beer website or an airline website. The behavior of the target determines the buying criteria, not the nature of the website.
Economy: Behavioral targeting reduces costs by allowing you to find those who are presumed to be golfers at cheaper locations than Golf Digest. By following a golfer to someplacecheap.com you can show her the same ad you might have shown her on the Golf Digest website, but at a lower cost. This results in lower CPMs (costs-per-thousand.) Keep this in mind because it will become important later.
Precision: Adtech helps you identify not just golfers in general, but left-handed women golfers over 35. Presumably, this results in "more relevant" advertising.The concept of behavioral targeting has been widely adopted by the advertising industry. As a general rule, behaviorally targeted ads are bought programmatically (by software.) Programmatic buying currently represents about 80% of online display advertising.
On the other hand, for the most part contextual advertising is bought directly from the publisher or the publisher’s network. While it may employ the use of some software, it is most often not bought programmatically.*
The question for advertisers is this -- is it more efficient to buy behaviorally or contextually? Because of the complexity of the system, it is almost impossible to compare apples to apples. But let’s try our best.
There are at least four aspects of behavioral targeting that are problematic:
- Accuracy: How accurate is the targeting data? Behavioral advertising is only as good as the data that informs it. There is troubling evidence that data residing in the adtech ecosystem -- particularly data bought from data brokers --- is not as accurate as might be hoped. We experience it every day when we get ads for stuff we bought three months ago and ads for products we have no interest in. In one test, targeting data bought from a data broker was able to correctly intuit the sex of an individual 43% of the time. A cat flipping a coin would be right 50% of the time.
- The “tech tax:” According to the World Federation of Advertisers and others, adtech, the technology that drives behavioral buying, costs about 60% of every ad dollar. In other words, buying, managing, and verifying the data that is needed for a programmatic buy eats up about 60¢ of every ad dollar. This means that of every dollar spent on behaviorally targeted advertising, only 40% is “working media.” Said another way, every ad dollar buys 60¢ of technology and 40¢ of advertising.
- The “fraud tax:” The web is riddled with ad fraud. The actual amount of fraud in the system is controversial, with estimates running from 5% to over 50%. Experts would agree that in open ad exchanges web fraud is probably at least 20% greater than it is when buying direct. Many would say it is far higher.
- The "long tail" of trash: There are tens of millions of websites. Many of them are pure junk. Many of them buy fake traffic to appear successful. Many of them aren't even real but are software that mimics a website for the purpose of attracting ad dollars. But they all sell ad space very cheaply. Programmatic systems see low prices on these junk sites and fake sites and bid on the worthless ad space they are selling to meet CPM goals. A famous case history involves Chase bank. They were advertising on 400,000 sites every month. They reduced the number of monthly sites to 5,000 (a reduction of almost 99%) and saw no difference in performance. An astounding number of the sites they were buying from programmatically were worthless.
- We know adtech eats 60¢ of every programmatic ad dollar. This means when we buy programmatically we have 40¢ left for working media.
- If fraud takes another 20% of our 40¢, it means we have 32¢ left for working media.
- So, if directly-bought (contextual) advertising delivers 100% working media, and programmatically-bought (behavioral) advertising delivers 32% working media, behavioral advertising has to perform at about three times the level of contextual advertising to be a break-even proposition.** Put another way, the technology we are paying for only pays out if the resulting media buy is three times as effective.
Experts I have spoken to tell me that it is highly unlikely that behavioral ads can perform at three times the level of contextual ads. In fact, it is not unusual for them to perform at a lower level.
There are other reasons why programmatically-bought behavioral advertising is questionable:
Brand safety: When you buy directly you know where your ad is going to run. When you buy programmatically it can run almost anywhere.
Data abuse: When you buy directly you greatly reduce the need for the adtech industry to collect the massive amount of data that drives behavioral targeting and leads to data abuse and privacy abuse. Additionally, the data you use to target and track your most likely customers programmatically are fed into the adtech system and become easily available to your biggest competitors. It's called "data leakage."
Fraud abatement: When you buy directly you greatly reduce the potential for fraud. You usually pay directly to a publisher which means there is much less opportunity for fraudsters to insert themselves into the complexity of the process.
Transparency: The complexity of the programmatic ad ecosystem makes the tracking of ad dollars grossly opaque. This has resulted in scandal after scandal and is now the central focus of an FBI investigation. Directly bought advertising is far more transparent. You know who and what you are paying for and you know what you’re getting.Behavioral targeting and its cousin, programmatic buying, are flawed concepts that have been sold to the marketing industry by people who have invested billions in systems designed to extract money from the ad buying industry. The more these people can complicate the system and insert themselves between the advertiser and the publisher, the more money they can extract.
Why is 80% of online advertising now bought programmatically? One very simple reason -- the "extractors" have convinced marketers that lower CPMs equal better value. As we said earlier, behavioral targeting often results in lower CPMs. But credible studies on this subject show that lower CPMs are not necessarily the result of more efficient buying. They are often the result of bottom-feeding -- more trash, more waste, more bots, more fraud and less value.
In traditional media -- where you know exactly what you're buying and the ecosystem isn’t drowning in trash and fraud -- using CPMs to evaluate efficiency is sensible. But online, where tens of millions of worthless and imaginary websites compete for your ad dollars by offering very low costs, using CPMs as a measure of efficiency is a mistake. Low CPMs are a truer indication of how much trash you're buying than how much efficiency you’re getting.
As regular readers know, I believe the adtech ecosystem -- and its evil spawn of tracking and surveillance -- are a dangerous and corrupting influence on advertising and on society. I hope this piece has demonstrated to the uninitiated that it is also bad business.
* There are hybrid ways to buy (e.g., programmatic direct) but we're trying to keep things simple here.
** In an effort to compare apple-to-apples and keep the math simple, I have given programmatic a working media number of 40% and direct buying 100%. In reality, direct buying doesn't produce 100% working media and programmatic buying doesn't produce 40% working media. The Association of National Advertisers says that programmatic buying only produces 25% working media I don’t know where that other 15% of “waste” for programmatic goes, so to be fair I’m going to assume that it is applicable to both programmatic and direct buying methods. In other words, direct buying probably results in something like 85% working media and programmatic something like 25% working media. But to keep the math simple I have given them both a 15% percent promotion to 100% and 40%.