Digital Ad Platforms Are Struggling to Keep Up With Their Industry

P&G’s complaints about Facebook’s reporting standards, followed by a YouTube boycott by 5 of the top 20 US advertisers (among many others) is the start of a growing trend. Digital advertisers are demanding more accountability from advertising platforms and more control over their placements, and they are refusing to accept anything less. We’re at a point where brands are ready to walk away from two of the largest digital advertising giants in the world if they can’t meet those standards.

Digital advertising is maturing, and the largest platforms that support it are struggling to grow with it.

Facebook’s scandal seems to have had far less short and long-term impact. It stands to reason that this is because it ultimately amounted to some lax reporting standards, or as YouTube’s metrics refer to them “stats for nerds.” It’s difficult for executives to be moved to action over metrics that many of them don’t even understand anyway.

Meanwhile those of us who work with digital advertising metrics every day are well aware of the fudgyness of these stats. We’ve all experienced it in some way, whether it’s the discrepancy between Facebook metrics and Google Analytics, or Facebook and a link shortner like bit.ly. Or perhaps you’ve seen the likes on a Facebook page drop from millions one day to zero the next, then back again. Either everyone hated us on Tuesday and loved us again on Wednesday, or there was a glitch in The Matrix. Sure the metrics are all probably “in the ballpark” but an exact science – “it ain’t.”

However, YouTube has uncovered another way in which major digital ad platforms are not serving their customers well, and unfortunately for them it’s not rooted in logic, but emotion. Any platform which places ads among user generated content, whether it’s between posts in your News Feed or before, during, or after a video, has to take quality control over the placement of those ads very seriously. That doesn’t seem to have been the case for YouTube though, who has aired ads from major brands alongside a veritable smorgasbord of objectionable content ranging from videos attacking women to content produced by literal terrorists.

YouTube promised to clean up its act, but when advertisers felt progress wasn’t being made they began pulling out en masse. YouTube is feeling the squeeze on both sides, not only from its advertisers, but also from its content creators, who are just as necessary to maintaining a profitable and stable business. Opinions among content creators vary widely, with some attempting failed campaigns to stop advertisers from jumping ship, while others like Bluedrake42 (his video is probably NSFW) are predicting this as the latest step on a continuing path towards disaster for the online video hub. However, whether they’re pitching free campaigns in an effort to help, or advocating strongly for leaving the platform, the overall sentiment among YouTube’s content creators seems grim.

What do digital advertising platforms have to do to avoid these issues and begin to meet the demands of their customers?

  1. Open a continuing dialogue with their advertisers, and involve people in their company who have the power to not only listen, but to act on the results of those discussions. These issues that are coming to the surface now have long been clear to the people “on the ground,” but they fester and grow until they burst out in a big, ugly boil, because the message isn’t getting back to the teams who manage these products.
  2. It not only makes sense to establish ongoing communications with advertisers, but for a company like YouTube which is utterly dependent on its content creators, it also makes sense to open up a line of communication with their community of contributors. YouTube could take a cue from CCP Games, the developer of EVE Online, and their Council of Stellar Management. This is a group of players who are elected by the community to represent them and their interests to the developers. CCP takes them very seriously, even flying these elected community members out to Iceland to meet face-to-face with the developers, and going so far as covering the costs of their flights and lodging. Such an approach could easily be applied to creating a group of advocates, chosen by their fellow content creators, to help keep YouTube on the same page as the people who build the content their platform runs on.
  3. They have to refocus on screening for the type of content advertisers actually dislike. As much as YouTube’s content creators have complained about how efficiently YouTube has demonetized their content based on it being focused on violent videos or containing too much swearing, YouTube has failed to actually identify highly offensive content that will be found objectively repulsive to a majority of adult viewers. The focus is all wrong, most people just don’t care about swearing and violence, advertisers certainly don’t seem to mind. Much of the technology already seems to be there for YouTube to relay the contents of a video to an algorithm and classify that content, and then decide whether it gets exposure or can be monetized based on the outcome of that analysis. Now YouTube needs to refocus their efforts on screening for the type of content that their advertisers actually find objectionable. Few brands mind their products appearing near a video featuring violent content, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a brand who wants their videos appearing in the middle of ISIS propaganda.

For now digital ad platforms are going to be stuck feeling the results of believing advertisers would take what they could get and wouldn’t walk away. Analysts are projecting that YouTube could lose up to $750 million as a result of the growing boycott against their ad business.

Facebook was quick to capitulate to P&G’s demands, with P&G threatening to pull out in late January in a bid to push Facebook towards pioneering the Media Rating Council’s viewability standards for digital media, and Facebook issuing new advertising options in compliance with P&G’s preferred industry standard in mid-February.

I expect the next major development we’ll see in this story (beyond more advertisers jumping off the sinking ship) will be the same swift response from YouTube. We can expect to see Google scrambling to give advertisers more control over their ad placements and more transparency about where their ads are being shown on the site in the near future.

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