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What 3Q Learned about Mobile Fraud in 2018, Part 2: Impression Data

Published: April 3, 2019

Author: Mike Thomas

Thanks for joining us on our road to MAU Vegas 2019, where we’ll be presenting our proprietary mobile ad fraud-fighting process! In the weeks to come, we’ll detail war stories and tactics for sniffing out and snuffing out fraud.
From past experience working more closely with brand publishers when I was building out an exchange at an SSP, a core metric we looked at was the impression. It goes without saying that if you’re buying or selling ad placements, you probably care about how many placements you’re buying.
Even if you don’t care, buying or selling these placements becomes very hard if you don’t have impression data. (“I’d like to buy a gaggle of ads and don’t care to see any reports” is not a phrase often heard in the digital industry, right?) Thankfully the CPM was invented and the digital marketing industry figured out how to buy and sell ads at scale, with a magical metric everyone could agree on.
When I moved to the advertiser side of the business a few years ago, working closely with direct response marketers, impressions were no longer a metric of interest. Why should they be? The pay model was no longer based on impressions, but rather clicks, installs, and down-funnel metrics. This is somewhat of a fair rebuke, on the surface, but regardless of what you’re paying for, impressions and CPMs still impact your performance. In an industry built on an obsession with data, it still seemed crazy that impressions were not an out-of-the-box metric.
So what happened when we started asking for impression data?
As we began asking our network partners responsible for buying media to provide impression data, the conversation didn’t go as smoothly as I had anticipated. Responses were all over the place, but the one that stood out the most was, “We don’t even collect this data.” It’s pretty concerning when the partner you’re trusting with your money doesn’t even know how many gaggles of ads they are buying for you. Ultimately, we were told that if we enforced this requirement, we would lose out on a lot of publishers — and we were happy to.
Impressions tell a valuable story. Without this data point, you often see an audience that is obsessed with clicking. Sure, some say Millennials’ attention spans are becoming increasingly worse, but to the point where they have started to click on everything? And to that point, clicking the same ad over and over again? That seems counterintuitive. Shouldn’t they have moved along to new ads to click on for fun?
Feeling so fortunate to have our new magical KPI, the impression, we were able to start seeing that Millennials aren’t as dedicated to clicking the same ad over and over again as we had once expected. (Maybe civilization will be okay.) Being able to now calculate important industry metrics like CPM and CTR, we were able to start spotting performance outliers amongst our partners. We could also ensure brand safety, making sure our ads didn’t serve in placements we didn’t want to be on. Ultimately we felt that fraud happens everywhere in the funnel, so getting impression data allowed us to uncover a whole new world of bad actors.
A simple backward calculation, by taking a realistic CTR (you can use another channel or industry average) to calculate that network who finds all the click-happy Millennials, will get you the estimated impression counts that they don’t care to show. Before you start feeling sad that most of today’s youth no longer go outside as they prefer to sear their eyeballs with endless mobile ads, rest assured, this is fraud and those impression counts are extremely inflated. This theory can also be backed by a CPM calculation, taking those astronomical impression counts and realizing their buying inventory at a $0.001 CPM. (Such bargain shoppers!) Not asking these networks for such an important KPI will only further encourage them to continue making convenient AdOps errors.
While there have been more adapters who can share impression data, there are still a lot of ad networks out there who do not. And quite frankly, this is crazy, and it should be the first question you ask the person pitching to take all your marketing money. Not because you’re looking to run brand campaigns and want to sign up for a guaranteed PMP CPM deal, but because if they don’t have that level of data, how are they really looking after your campaign? They’re most likely just re-brokering your traffic, which is another content marketing post for another time. And if they aren’t re-brokering, chances are the networks are firing your click trackers when an impression fires, in attempts to game the attribution waterfall or steal organics.
While simply receiving impression data to review CPMs and CTRs is great, and we should feel so privileged, the industry needs to do much more to combat impression fraud. While MMPs have been on the forefront of combating ad fraud, most of those efforts have been at the click or install level, and rightfully so, but this is leaving the door wide open for view-through fraud. We’ve been fortunate to work closely with some of the top MMPs as they build out new impression-based fraud thresholds to complement their fraud suites, flagging things like high impressions per device and IP, high and low CTRs, and view vs. click conversion % flags; these have allowed us to get rid of shady inventory and partners that went undetected before. These are great first steps, but we have a long way to go.
The industry still doesn’t have any solution to measure in-app viewability, another core display metric that somehow hasn’t made it to performance marketing. I remain optimistic as MMPs are already leading the charge to help address fraud, utilizing impression data. Just a few weeks ago, the measurement platform Adjust released a new tool to combat click fraud by using proof of impression data to validate that the click actually happened. This seems like a common-sense solution but is the first of its kind. I believe in-app events will continue to provide more insights into ROI and the true value of our marketing efforts, but let’s not lose sight of where we started: with the humble impression.
Don’t miss our talk at MAU Vegas 2019 (War Stories and Tactics for Fighting Mobile Ad Fraud – Wednesday, May 1 @ 3:40PM), where we’ll cover this and much more.

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