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Navigating the digital media wilderness

14 Jan 2020  |  Richard Reeves 
Navigating the digital media wilderness

While steps made to demystify digital media have been encouraging, Richard Reeves argues advertisers still lack the kit they need to effectively traverse the landscape

The digital media landscape is full of dark recesses and murky pathways, and to some extent we must accept this. But for every shadowy track there’s also a well-lit trail, yet as an industry we still lack the clear signposts showing us these distinct routes.

To make the journey more complicated, the right course through the rough terrain is different for every buyer. The compass used by major brands may point them along the well-lit pathway of premium publishers, while low budget advertisers might be better off on the somewhat shadier route of long-tail sites.

To successfully navigate the digital media landscape, we need access to a far more detailed map, as well as improvements in the quality and suitability of our kit.

A detailed map: Meaningful and robust industry standards

If you set out into the wilderness you wouldn’t take a world atlas with a high-level overview of every nation. You’d take a granular walking map with as much detail as possible, appropriate to your local area.

The same is true when traversing digital media. The constant talk of industry standards is encouraging, and guidelines such as JICWEBS and the IAB Gold Standard are positive steps in the right direction, but with broad-brush benchmarks we’re missing the point. In a complex industry, we need greater granularity around all media.

Large FMCG brands often shout loudest about the need for quality standards, but these same brands spend budgets in the murky long tail of the digital landscape, with commodity driven buying behaviour prioritising scale over quality.

It’s only natural then that the standards they demand adherence to are nothing more than a minimum bar.

While premium publishers support the development of industry benchmarks, they already work to existing operating standards, enshrined in policy and set far above those implemented across the industry. By setting targets that are accessible and achievable by all, we risk diluting existing standards and simply defining practices that would otherwise be deemed sub-standard.

Premium publishers with original content, established codes of conduct, transparent policies, and total accountability are crippled by benchmarks designed for the long tail.

To address this disparity, we must collaborate on meaningful and robust standards that go beyond minimum requirements to guarantee quality audiences and inventory. Standards should empower advertisers to make truly informed decisions, and allow premium publishers to differentiate high quality environments from those that simply meet basic expectations – effectively signposting the different paths.

We are progressing towards a more detailed map, for instance changes to JICWEBS’ DTSG Good Practice Principles include the capability to showcase measures that demonstrate a business is going above and beyond baseline standards.

But more needs to be done around granular standards, accountability and the right to compete fairly for advertiser funds to create a more sustainable, transparent and navigable landscape.

Quality kit: Sensitive verification tech

Much as a wilderness explorer might be weighed down by an overloaded backpack, digital advertising is burdened with clunky content verification tools that can cause page latency issues and reporting discrepancies.

For instance, non-compliant creative files can trigger latency issues even when there is no problem with the creative, and overburdened ad verification pixels can fail to fire in time to register an impression, even when an ad is effectively served.

Another example is over-zealous application of keyword block lists as well as content and category exclusions, which impact around 30-50% of AOP members’ transactions. Ads are prevented from appearing around premium, brand safe content that is erroneously assigned to a particular category due to a specific keyword.

Examples include an article about toy dolls assigned to the hate speech category due to the keyword ‘troll,’ and an article about the Duchess of Sussex assigned to the adult category because of the last three letters of her title.

Again, progress is being made, including a move away from probabilistic AI keyword blocking towards the deployment of natural language processing technology that considers the importance of context.

But further development of sensitive content verification technology is required to help rather than hinder digital advertising. Premium publishers are disproportionately penalised by clunky tools applied in a quality environment, where context is not recognised, and reporting discrepancies are introduced.

The digital advertising ecosystem is highly complex, so creating effective tools and technologies requires extensive industry experience. Just as those navigating a wilderness might benefit from a guide with local knowledge, the industry must collaborate and share expertise in tackling these issues.

For instance, ensuring compliance with the GDPR is far from straightforward, but the AOP is working closely with the ICO to help it understand digital publishing complexities as well as with industry players to commit to an Advertising Protocol to deliver transactional transparency.

Digital media remains an uncultivated wilderness, with perilous pathways alongside more reliable routes. To ensure it is waymarked well enough for advertisers to traverse their chosen path, we need industry collaboration to create a detailed map, in the form of granular and meaningful standards, as well as quality kit in the form of sensitive content verification tools that don’t penalise premium content.

With these signposts in place we can successfully navigate a truly complex ecosystem, delivering positive user experiences and ensuring ads appear in a premium environment.


Richard Reeves is managing director at the Association for Online Publishing (AOP)

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22 May 2020 

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