Social media activism organization Sleeping Giants recently blew the whistle on Uber for running ads on the far-right website Breitbart. Uber blacklisted the site in their ad campaign, yet somehow, ads kept showing up. The ride-share giant decided to pause ten percent of their ad spend, and expected to see a significant drop off in new users. They didn’t; instead, they found a much worse problem. Uber’s ads weren’t converting new people to join, and after further experimenting, they found that two-thirds of their ad budget — $100 million — was wasted on fraudulent metrics.

Fraud thrives in the world of programmatic advertising because it can be impossible to distinguish between fraud and an ineffective ad campaign. It is also a murky landscape of various types of vendors and sub-vendors, which can be challenging to understand, as illustrated in the infographic below.

Horror stories about large advertisers such as Uber, P&G, Chase, and eBay losing millions of marketing dollars to click farms can be enough to make any organization question the value of display advertising and retargeting. Despite widespread fear of ad fraud, online advertising remains a critical tool for building brand awareness. It doesn’t have to be scary.

Many digital marketers intentionally present the most favorable metrics so that brands will continue to spend money with them. The plethora of information available makes it very easy to cherry-pick the “good” data and hide away the “bad” data that is unfavorable to the marketer’s efforts. To that end, it’s also very easy to find unflattering metrics and use them to win business from your competitors. Vendors use lots of acronyms and buzzwords to demonstrate their programmatic expertise, which can be daunting for executives trying to understand the bottom line and what it all means.

That’s why we’ve put together a list of questions to help you see through the “vanity metrics” and identify ad fraud vs. poor campaign performance before they consume your marketing budget.

“Can you please provide us with. . .”

  • Your process for detecting ad fraud
  • Your bid optimization process — is it automated or managed by people?
  • A list of your technology partners — DSP’s, sub-vendors, trading desks, 3rd party data companies, or others depending on the media type
  • A list of the websites, apps, etc. that our ads are served on?
  • Benchmarks for similar types of campaigns (having pre-researched what they should be)
  • Your CPM and CPC rates (having pre-researched what they should be)
  • Regular metrics reports — not just midway through and end — but at regular intervals so that you can spot irregularities in real-time
  • A break out of your impressions by region (make sure all of them aren’t coming from a click farm — these can be anywhere from Virginia to India)
  • The post-click activities — so you can track how effective various activities were on your bottom line
  • What qualifies as a ______? Fill in the blank with any metric — could be engagements, clicks, impressions completions, conversions, etc. Sometimes something only has to be on two percent of the screen for half a second — that isn’t really an impression you should be paying for.

The next time your paid media manager tells you that your campaign performance is all rainbows and butterflies, refer back to this list. You will be able to determine if what they are saying is true and maximize your precious advertising budget.