For the past few years, I’ve been thinking about the Internet as reflection of humanity and the collective consciousness. It has become ubiquitous, and in some ways, it has a life of its own; algorithms that symbiotically evolve with our collective browsing and clicking habits.
Quick and Dirty Market Survey
eMarketer has great public charts and data, and I did some quick research.
- US paid media ad spending will grow steadily in 2017 to $206 billion.
- US digital ad spending will grow from $73 billion in 2016 to $83 billion in 2017 with a growth forecast to $129.23 billion in 2021.
- Digital ad spending is growing in market share and mobile the main driver of growth.
- Native display ads are expected to account for more than half of all US digital display media ad spending in 2017.
- Advertisers will spend $22.09 billion on native display ads in 2017 alone.
- Social advertising (Facebook, Twitter, Snap, etc.) will account for 84.2% of total US native display ad dollars in 2017. However, this share is slowly declining, as non-social applications introduce native advertising.
- Google and Facebook dominate US mobile ads, capturing 54% in 2016, and a projected 57% market share in 2017.
- Globally, Google and Facebook are projected to capture $72.69 billion and $33.76 billion, respectively, bringing the two ad techs’ share of the digital ad market to 46.4% worldwide in 2017.
- Snapchat is poised for “explosive growth”, projected by eMarketer to grow 157.8% to $770 million in the US in 2017.
To get an idea of what the digital ad ecosystem looks like, here are two sample LUMAscapes
This LinkedIn post by Mike Goldberg does a great job covering the basics of the different components in the programmatic ecosystem.
The digital ad ecosystem is complex, with lots of different different companies, often serving multiple roles in the ecosystem, making things complex and often opaque.
- Advertiser/Marketer – has a product to sell. May work with agencies for media planning, buying, and possibly creative.
- Ad Networks – online ad service provider with various sources of inventory. (such as Google, Yahoo.)
- Ad Servers – deliver digital ads to websites/apps.
- Trading Desks – trading service that utilizes real-time-bidding (RTB), enhanced with data.
- DSPs – Demand-Side Platforms – Tools to purchase millions of targeted ad impressions.
- DMPs – Data Management Platforms – Tools to manage and analyze vast amounts of data generated by the ecosystem.
- Ad Exchanges – online auction marketplaces for buying and selling of inventory across multiple ad networks.
- SSPs – Supply-Side Platforms – Tools to maximize ad revenues selling inventory on ad exchanges and ad networks.
- Publishers – Owners of inventory. (Large media companies, blogs, apps, etc.)
Eric Picard put together a great chart that shows the Advertising Ecosystem Impression/Dollar Flow in an older 2012 article.
The Fraud Elephant
Now that we have a sense of the complex ecosystem, it’s time to discuss the elephant in the room. The digital advertising ecosystem is infested with fraud. Dr. Augustine Fou’s presentation summarizes the problem well.
From this Harvard Business Review article, Dr. Augustine Fou states:
“It’s very difficult to get anyone to pay attention to this problem. Everyone has something to gain from the fake traffic.”
This is such a well known problem, it makes an appearance in HBO’s Silicon Valley.
There was an October 2015 Distil Networks report that estimated ad fraud to cost the industry about $18.5 billion annually, and that for every $3 spent in digital advertising, $1 is going to ad fraud.
According to WhiteOps, an anti-ad fraud security firm: In late 2016, a group of Russian hackers created a botnet called “Methbot” that siphons $3 million to $5 million in fraudulent revenue per day. Now, Dr. Fou is a ad fraud consultant, and both Distil and WhiteOps are anti-ad fraud security firms, so it is in their interest to estimate high levels of ad fraud.
Regardless, the ecosystem is broken and the problem is real.
Pirate and porn sites infested with malware are ready to capture your computer and turn it into a slave on a massive botnet that is the then used to click fraudulent ads some of which are also served on those same sites along with other fake sites. These fraudulent clicks feed into programmatic real-time bidding ad exchanges, trading desks, DSPs, and SSPs. The botnets are so powerful that they are slowly driving third world country click farms out of business by committing fraud more efficiently and effectively than those armies of slave wage workers.
Meanwhile the DMPs are dedicating massive brainpower and resources to sell services to fight the fraud and also optimize links to maximize click-through and revenue. There are companies such as Taboola, Outbrain, Revcontent, and Zergnet serving viral ads all over the web. There’s a simple reason.
Depending on the size of the outlet and the amount of traffic they can generate, a contract with Outbrain or Taboola—the two largest providers of such links—can mean millions of dollars in guaranteed annual income. And if your print advertising is declining 30% in a single quarter, that sounds great.
A Closer Look
I decided to take a look at some Outbrain ads.
Outbrain served me the following Sponsored Content as I was browsing Business Insider while researching this post, shown on the right. The content has clearly been tuned to appeal to our human psychology by showing us attractive women and curiosity inducing link titles. Clickbait.
- Truthfinder – This led to a fake “The Beacon” magazine article with the title: I Typed in My Name and the Results Had Me Speechless. The website itself is a public records search business, and as I looked around for reviews, I found this review site with 143 reviews – two positive and 141 negative, with many complaints of fraudulent credit card charges and selling of their email address to spammers.
- The Modern Man Today – This led to another fake article titled The Skin Tightener Every Man Should Know About, telling a story of discovering this miracle product, and web design that implies magazine coverage from GQ, Variety, subtly implying that Matt Damon and Robert Downey Jr. use the product. In reality, almost every single link, from the menus to the magazine covers leads to a landing page for a product called LifeCell. There are what appears to be fake Facebook reviews (some of the users seem fake, and others … were they hacked?) and are even disclaimers at the bottom of the page that essentially confess to the page being an advertisement and fake article and the “celebrity endorsements” are justified because the celebrities attended an event where they accepted a goodie bag with the product.
- Business Insider – This was interesting. Business Insider bought an ad that was served through Outbrain on their own page? Curious. The article is a glowing review of an $89 sweatshirt made by American Giant with the title This hoodie is so insanely popular you have to wait months to get it. At the end of the article there is also a link to another article titled We tested what might be one of the best hoodies out there. Hey, I love hoodies too, so sure why not… At the top of their article:The Insider Picks team writes about stuff we think you’ll like. Business Insider has affiliate partnerships so we may get a share of the revenue from your purchase.Ok, I don’t have too much of a problem with this – they like hoodies, I like hoodies, if I buy a hoodie, and they get an affiliate referral fee, sure.So, what’s up with the American Giant article? Where’s the affiliate fee? I dig a little further, and find that this Business Insider article is actually part of a marketing campaign done by Launch Squad. It was a placed article to promote the brand, with traffic spread by Outbrain onto sites such as Business Insider to generate “Thought Leadership.”
We partnered with American Giant prior to their launch in February 2012. We set out to develop a cult following of the brand through creative campaigns and social marketing. In December, 2012, American Giant was cited as creating the “best hoodie in the world” by Slate, which led to unchartered success for the young company.
We focused on the value of American manufacturing from the CEO’s perspective, and placed contributed articles in Forbes, Fast Company, Business Insider, and others.
These three case studies in current day digital marketing give a pretty good survey of a few different types of digital advertising. Fraudulent? Maybe, they aren’t technically “illegal fraud”, but the practices definitely feel deceptive and purely profit driven.
Much of the ad tech industry finds themselves in a parasitic relationship with ad fraud, either making a living fighting it, or accepting the “necessary evil” of having fraudulent inventory trading across their platforms as they profit off of it. It reflects a kind of desperation, scraping the monetization scraps left behind by the bigger players in the industry.
The Two Giants
The reality is, the digital ad fraud issue, on some level, doesn’t matter. It’s just noise. It will always be there, but the bottom line is that the digital ad market is currently dominated by a two giants.
The two giants consume over $100 billion and 46.4% of the market, and they are ravenously chomping away at market share.
Based on the IAB’s numbers and public financial numbers from Google and Facebook, the two digital giants accounted for about 99% of the $2.9 billion in advertising growth in the third quarter—with Google making up about 54% of the total and Facebook about 45%, leaving just 1% for everyone else.
The Cool Kids
A few weeks ago, I was talking to my 13 year old daughter and asking her about her generation’s mobile online behavior.
What apps do you use?
“Mostly Snapchat and Instagram.”
How about Facebook?
“Sometimes we just use it to login to apps. Besides that, we don’t really use it.”
Do you mostly watch Youtube or do you use Vimeo too?
“I dunno, we just like Youtube. They force us to use Vimeo at school sometimes.”
What websites do you visit?
“Websites? I don’t visit websites. We get our news from Snapchat. It could all be fake, and we wouldn’t know.”
Gary Vaynerchuk has a good writeup, The Snap Generation: A guide to Snapchat’s history. The Snap Generation (beyond Millennials?) has been raised not just on the Internet, but on smartphones as well. Many of them have spent their conscious lives constantly connected online to their friends.
The Snap Generation values their privacy and consumes social media like little digital snacks, creating a real-time mental multidimensional map of their social and virtual connections instantly in their heads. They are accustomed to instant gratification from Google, Wikipedia, music streaming, and Amazon Prime. They learn how do do anything from Youtube. They play video games, and like to watch others play video games on streaming channels and Youtube. They leave an ephemeral digital exhaust trail that is characteristically different from the previous generations. It’ll be interesting to see how this generation evolves as the reach adulthood.
Break the Internet
So, is the Internet broken? Not really, it is just a reflection of human behaviors with machine learning algorithms optimized to maximize monetization of ad traffic on the Internet. The links that work are links that our human collective are responsive to, and computers are really good at figuring it out. Every time Kim Kardasian releases a naked selfie, it spreads all over the Internet, because we are addicted to controversy, and her ego is addicted to attention. A woman with almost 100 million followers on Instagram needed to do an attention seeking photo shoot because she needed it to feel empowered and confident? What an interesting reflection of the human ego.
Data scientists and machine learning algorithms are extremely powerful at figuring out what makes us click. This is not good or evil – it is a tool that can be used to subconsciously change our behavior. It turns out that as humans, we all have an inherent need to connect and share stories. Technology has evolved in order to enhance this ability, just at a scale that we could have never imagined.
Elon Musk considers artificial intelligence the greatest existential threat to humanity.
“With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon. You know all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water and … he’s sure he can control the demon. It doesn’t work out.”
A.I. is already here, and is subtly modifying the collective psyche of our species, tailoring our experiences online through the forces of ad monetization, psychographics, and digital exhaust trail analysis applied to a human connection, validation, and impact loop. The human race is a race of storytellers, and on a meta level, the Internet is simply an accelerated real-time digital micro-story exchange.
Cambridge Analytica, a data science firm is in the news these days for getting paid millions of dollars by President Trump’s campaign to use psychographics micro-targeting to affect the behavior of voters. Psychographics use the Big Five Model, also known as the OCEAN Model, to psychologically profile people in order to target them better.
- Openness to experience describes a dimension of personality that distinguishes imaginative, creative people from down-to-earth, conventional people.
- Conscientiousness concerns the way in which we control, regulate, and direct our impulses.
- Extraversion is marked by pronounced engagement with the external world, versus being comfortable with your own company.
- Agreeableness reflects individual differences in concern with cooperation and social harmony.
- Neuroticism refers to the tendency to experience negative emotions.
Cambridge Analytica is using these (and other) personality profiles to create micro-targeted messages for marketing campaigns.
Cambridge Analytica is reportedly ramping up its U.S. government business. The U.S. government is hiring a “psychographic, behavioral modification” firm to help with its messaging. Our dystopian future has fully arrived.
In all seriousness, the reality is that computers and the Internet are a modern miracle. The digital age is catapulting humanity forward at an unimaginable rate. We have more access to learning, products, travel, experiences, everything than ever before. In all of the chaos, there is incredible opportunity.
Digital ads have been the fuel of the Internet since the dotcom boom, and aren’t going away anywhere soon. The experience of digital ads is improving, and opportunities to participate in the evolution of human communication and consciousness are more accessible than ever.