Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Advertising Is A Bubble

The surveillance economy, and thus the stratospheric valuations of:
Facebook and Alphabet (Google’s parent), which rely on advertising for, respectively, 97% and 88% of their sales.
depend on the idea that targeted advertising, exploiting as much personal information about users as possible, results in enough increased sales to justify its cost.This is despite the fact the both experimental research and the experience of major publishers and advertisers show the opposite. Now, The new dot com bubble is here: it’s called online advertising by Jesse Frederik and Maurits Martijn provides an explanation for this disconnect. Follow me below the fold to find out about it and enjoy some wonderful quotes from them.


There are three kinds of problem that mean dollars spent on Web advertising are wasted. First, the Web advertising ecosystem is rife with fraud. Much of it is click fraud, which means the ads are seen by bots not people. Second, ad targeting just doesn't work well to put ads in front of potential buyers. Third, because of the way ad targeting works, most of the potential buyers who see ads are people who would buy the product without seeing the ad.


For example, at The Register Thomas Claburn writes:
'It's about 60 to 100 per cent fraud, with an average of 90 per cent, but it is not evenly distributed,' said Augustine Fou, an independent ad fraud researcher, in a report published this month.
Among quality publishers, Fou reckons $1 spent buys $0.68 in ads actually viewed by real people. But on ad networks and open exchanges, fraud is rampant.

With ad networks, after fees and bots – which account for 30 per cent of traffic – are taken into account, $1 buys $0.07 worth of ad impressions viewed by real people. With open ad exchanges – where bots make up 70 per cent of traffic – that figure is more like $0.01. In other words, web adverts displayed via these networks just aren't being seen by actual people, just automated software scamming advertisers.
The Association of National Advertisers report on ad fraud for 2017 was optimistic:
The third annual Bot Baseline Report reveals that the economic losses due to bot fraud are estimated to reach $6.5 billion globally in 2017. This is down 10 percent from the $7.2 billion reported in last year's study.
This year's report is similarly optimistic:
Today, fraud attempts amount to 20 to 35 percent of all ad impressions throughout the year, but the fraud that gets through and gets paid for now is now much smaller. We project losses to fraud to reach $5.8 billion globally in 2019. In our prior study, we projected losses of $6.5 billion for 2017. That 11 percent decline in two years is particularly impressive considering that digital ad spending increased by 25.4 percent between 2017 and 2019. ... Absent those measures, losses to fraud would have grown to at least $14 billion annually.
The bad guys, for very little investment, are reaping income of $5.8B/yr. Their ROI is vastly better than the advertisers, or the platforms. No-one cares.


Sapna Maheshwari reported for the New York Times on a JP Morgan study:
Of the 400,000 web addresses JPMorgan’s ads showed up on in a recent 30-day period, said Ms. Lemkau, only 12,000, or 3 percent, led to activity beyond an impression. An intern then manually clicked on each of those addresses to ensure that the websites were ones the company wanted to advertise on. About 7,000 of them were not, winnowing the group to 5,000. The shift has been easier to execute than expected, Ms. Lemkau said, even as some in the industry warned the company that it risked missing out on audience “reach” and efficiency.
The cull apparently had no effect on the traffic to JPMorgan's website.

In After GDPR, The New York Times cut off ad exchanges in Europe — and kept growing ad revenue, Jessica Davies reported that:
When the General Data Protection Regulation arrived last year, The New York Times didn’t take any chances.

The publisher blocked all open-exchange ad buying on its European pages, followed swiftly by behavioral targeting. Instead, NYT International focused on contextual and geographical targeting for programmatic guaranteed and private marketplace deals and has not seen ad revenues drop as a result, according to Jean-Christophe Demarta, svp for global advertising at New York Times International.

Currently, all the ads running on European pages are direct-sold. Although the publisher doesn’t break out exact revenues for Europe, Demarta said that digital advertising revenue has increased significantly since last May and that has continued into early 2019.
Natasha Lomas' The case against behavioral advertising is stacking up reported on research by Carnegie-Mellon professor Alessandro Acquisti working with a large U.S. publisher that provided the researchers with millions of transactions to study:
Acquisti said the research showed that behaviourally targeted advertising had increased the publisher’s revenue but only marginally. At the same time they found that marketers were having to pay orders of magnitude more to buy these targeted ads, despite the minuscule additional revenue they generated for the publisher.

“What we found was that, yes, advertising with cookies — so targeted advertising — did increase revenues — but by a tiny amount. Four per cent. In absolute terms the increase in revenues was $0.000008 per advertisment,” Acquisti told the hearing. “Simultaneously we were running a study, as merchants, buying ads with a different degree of targeting. And we found that for the merchants sometimes buying targeted ads over untargeted ads can be 500% times as expensive.
Procter & Gamble has the world's biggest ad budget. They also tried cutting back on Web ads:
Importantly, as we made those decisions and put our money where our mouth has been in terms of the need to increase the efficiency of that supply chain, ensure solid and strong placement of individual ads, we didn’t see a reduction in the growth rate. So as you know, we’ve delivered over 2% organic sales growth on 2% volume growth in the quarter. And that — what that tells me is that, that spending that we cut was largely ineffective.
The fact that targeting doesn't work shouldn't be a surprise to any Web user. Two universal experiences:
  • I buy something on Amazon. For days afterwards, many of the ads that make it past my ad blockers are for the thing I just bought.
  • For weeks now, about half the videos I watch on YouTube start by showing me exactly the same ad for Shen Yun. Every time I see it I click "skip ad", so YouTube should have been able after all this time to figure out that I'm not interested and show me a different ad.
But note that the ad platforms don't care. They can't be bothered to enhance their targeting algorithms to exploit what they know. Why? They get paid in both cases.

Selection Bias

Frederik and Martijn focus on yet another problem with the numbers used to justify spending on Web ads, selection bias:
Economists refer to this as a "selection effect." It is crucial for advertisers to distinguish such a selection effect (people see your ad, but were already going to click, buy, register, or download) from the advertising effect (people see your ad, and that’s why they start clicking, buying, registering, downloading).
They talked with Berkeley economics Professor Steve Tadelis, who worked with eBay's marketing team:
People really do click on the paid-link to eBay.com an awful lot. But if that link weren’t there, presumably they would click on the link just below it: the free link to eBay.com. The data consultants were basing their profit calculations on clicks they would be getting anyway.
Tadelis got the opportunity for a real-world experiment:
There was a clash going on between the marketing department at eBay and the MSN network (Bing and Yahoo!). Ebay wanted to negotiate lower prices, and to get leverage decided to stop ads for the keyword ‘eBay’.

Tadelis got right down to business. Together with his team, he carefully analysed the effects of the ad stop. Three months later, the results were clear: all the traffic that had previously come from paid links was now coming in through ordinary links. Tadelis had been right all along. Annually, eBay was burning a good $20m on ads targeting the keyword ‘eBay’.
eBay wasn't the only company discovering this:
Economists at Facebook conducted 15 experiments that showed the enormous impact of selection effects. A large retailer launched a Facebook campaign. Initially it was assumed that the retailer’s ad would only have to be shown 1,490 times before one person actually bought something.

But the experiment revealed that many of those people would have shopped there anyway; only one in 14,300 found the webshop because of the ad. In other words, the selection effects were almost 10 times stronger than the advertising effect alone!

And this was no exception. Selection effects substantially outweighed advertising effects in most of these Facebook experiments. At its strongest, the selection bias was even 50 (!) times more influential.
Many publishers and platforms have done experiments showing that spending on Web advertising is wasted. But they don't care.


Why doesn't anyone bar a few researchers care that the Web advertising system is broken and wastes gigantic amounts of money?

Frederik and Martijn have an explanation:
It might sound crazy, but companies are not equipped to assess whether their ad spending actually makes money. It is in the best interest of a firm like eBay to know whether its campaigns are profitable, but not so for eBay’s marketing department.

Its own interest is in securing the largest possible budget, which is much easier if you can demonstrate that what you do actually works. Within the marketing department, TV, print and digital compete with each other to show who’s more important, a dynamic that hardly promotes honest reporting.
Marketers are often most successful at marketing their own marketing.
The marketeer's effective marketing works for everyone:
"Bad methodology makes everyone happy,” said David Reiley, who used to head Yahoo’s economics team and is now working for streaming service Pandora. "It will make the publisher happy. It will make the person who bought the media happy. It will make the boss of the person who bought the media happy. It will make the ad agency happy. Everybody can brag that they had a very successful campaign."
Key to the effectiveness of the marketing is that uses numbers, so appears "scientific":
We want certainty. We used to find it in the Don Drapers of the world, the ones with the best one-liners up their sleeves. Today we look for certainty from data analysts who are supposed to just show us the numbers.
So scientific that management needs to rely on "experts"
The fact that management often has no idea how to interpret the numbers is not helpful either. The highest numbers win.
Prof. Tadelis summed it up at a conference:
"What Randall is trying to say," the former eBay economist interjected, "is that marketeers actually believe that their marketing works, even if it doesn’t. Just like we believe our research is important, even if it isn’t."


David. said...

The New York Times has grown digital subscription income from $400M in 2015 to $800M last year.

Chris Rusbridge said...

I think the axiom (or factoid) that most advertising is wasted is true in all media. I vaguely remember a quote from a media mogul to the effect "I know that half my advertising budget is wasted, I just don't know which half".

But I do agree with you thoroughly on the fatuity of "targeted" adverts, specially those trying to sell you things you've just bought. I have some advert settings turned off (not all, as I do try and support some bloggers etc who provide "free" content I enjoy consuming), so I have no way of knowing whether the other semi-random repeated adverts I see are poor targeting or simply my preferences working.

But in all media types there are a very few adverts I have for some reason noted and even acted on. No idea what prompted those particular cases. And nor, I suspect, do their advertisers.

David. said...

Dan Goodin reports that Google plans to drop Chrome support for tracking cookies by 2022:

"Feeling the pressure from competing browser developers, Google on Tuesday laid out a plan to drop Chrome support of tracking cookies within two years."

Thank you Mozilla's now default Enhanced Tracking Protection in Firefox! Please donate to keep the pressure on.

naturally, Google isn't giving up on targeted ads. Goodin writes:

"Privacy sandbox uses browser-based machine learning and other techniques to determine user interests and aggregate them with other users. Google—whose ad-driven revenue model strongly favors ads that target individuals' interests and demographics—said the proposed standard would allow advertisers to deliver more relevant ads without allowing them to track individual users."

Anything to keep the bubble afloat!

Ute Hillmer said...

David, what a great discussion! Being a former Corporate Communication Executive, spending vast amounts of money on online marketing, it makes me wonder. Being a small business owner promoting my consultancy, it makes me wonder even more! :D

However, the core reason for my comment is to get back in touch. remember me? Good old Sun Micro times?
my eMail should show up, else just google my name, my mail address should pop up. I was not able to track yours down. I'd love to get back in touch!

Cheers, Ute

David. said...

Google redesigned the UI of their search engine to further obscure the fact that most of what you see ar ads, not "organic" search results. People noticed that they were being even more evil than they used to be, and the pushback was enough to get Google to backtrack.

David. said...

Daisuke Wakabayashi and Tiffany Hsu have the details on Google's backtrack in Why Google Backtracked on Its New Search Results Look, including this informative timeline graphic.

David. said...

Dominic Rushe's headline says it all: $15bn a year: YouTube reveals its ad revenues for the first time.

David. said...

In Google’s Top Search Result? Surprise! It’s Google,
Adrianne Jeffries and Leon Yin look into how far down the page you have to scroll to find a result that isn't from Google itself:

"We examined more than 15,000 recent popular queries and found that Google devoted 41 percent of the first page of search results on mobile devices to its own properties and what it calls “direct answers,” which are populated with information copied from other sources, sometimes without their knowledge or consent.

When we examined the top 15 percent of the page, the equivalent of the first screen on an iPhone X, that figure jumped to 63 percent. For one in five searches in our sample, links to external websites did not appear on the first screen at all."

So these days Google is more like a walled garden than a paid search engine. Advertisers are paying for placements that users can't see without scrolling! That's pretty evil!