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Last week, a study by the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) indicated that nearly two-thirds of its members (large national advertisers) are either “only slightly familiar with – or completely unaware of – the concept of sourced traffic in the digital advertising ecosystem”.  So, if you don’t know what in the heck sourced traffic is either, you are in very good company.

What is Sourced Traffic?

The practice of sourcing traffic is essentially any means by which digital media publishers or vendors acquire audience (visitors) through third parties.  So, this is audience being sold by the vendor which is not occurring in the traditional advertising model (by which a publisher puts out content which attracts an audience and then sells ads to reach that audience).  In other words, sourced traffic is by definition not organic traffic to the publisher’s site.

“With sourced traffic, a publisher pays a third-party vendor to send users to its site by advertising on other publishers’ sites.  Sourced traffic may occur when a seller needs to meet the audience delivery requirements of a campaign and has to increase visitors to its site,” the ANA explains.  In some cases, sourced traffic can be as simple as an “audience extension” initiative, where publishers employ programmatic exchanges to purchase “lookalike” audiences to help fulfill their own audience guarantees (which would otherwise fall short).  Many major publishers employ this practice.

And I Should Care … Why?

If an advertiser is buying an audience, and a publisher is delivering that audience, then what’s the problem?  The client wanted to reach a bunch o’people, and the publisher got their ad in front of a bunch o’people.  The amount of said bunch was defined and delivered.  End of story.Except.  Advertisers buy ads with specific publishers for reasons.  Perhaps they want that publisher’s audience.  Maybe they want their ads to be in that publisher’s editorial environment.  With sourced traffic, they get neither.  There is no transparency into how closely an “audience extension” campaign, for example, matches the purchased publisher’s audience or editorial environment.  An individual impression might be comparable or even better for a certain advertiser.  Or it might be a whole lot worse.

Oh, and also.  There’s a boatload of fraud present in that sourced traffic.  In a study released jointly by the ANA and White Ops in December, 2014, it was determined that publishers who bought sourced traffic from a third party had 52% fraud.  “To put that in perspective,” writes Bill Duggan, Group EVP at the ANA, “fraud in display advertising overall was 11% so sourced traffic display inventory was almost five times higher!  Importantly, well-known publishers and premium publishers were not immune to high bot levels in sourced traffic.

”The fact of the matter is that (contrary to popular belief), there is not an infinite amount of human audience supply in digital media – especially for advertisers who are looking for premium publishers and audiences.  In some cases (like leading in to the holidays), demand outstrips the available supply of human traffic.  This is when sourced traffic comes in to play.  The problem is, according to the ANA and White Ops study, nearly 90% of sourced traffic is attributable to bots.  In a 2015 ANA/White Ops Bot Baseline report, bots comprised three times as high a percentage in sourced traffic compared to unsourced traffic.

Yowza.  That has to get your attention, right?  You, an advertiser, are buying a campaign from a publisher.  That publisher does not have enough inventory to satisfy your needs.  Rather than turn you away, though, they accept your buy and then go out and deliver part of your “audience” elsewhere.  Like, not where you bought it.  Oh, and some of the stuff that is running (not where you bought it) is delivering your advertising message to non-human traffic, i.e. bots.  Who can’t buy your stuff, can’t love your brand, etc.  Were you made aware of that?  Was your agency?

Say you went to the doughnut shop.  Just stay with me.  You order a dozen doughnuts.  They ring you up for a dozen doughnuts, and then they charge you for a dozen doughnuts.  They hand you a bag, and you scoot off to work.  When you get to work and open the bag, there are only 9 doughnuts.  And 3 cans of sardines.  And, 2 of the cans of sardines are empty.  That’s what we’re talking about here.That’s why you should care.

Why Aren’t More Advertisers Aware of This?

When the ANA asked its members whether their digital buys include any sourced traffic, 54% said they were either unsure or did not know.  61% of respondents were either unfamiliar or only slightly familiar with the very concept of sourced traffic.As we’ve observed before in this space, the digital paid media ecosystem is staggeringly complex.  The paid media supply chain for so-called traditional media is complex enough as it is.  This complexity and the inconsistent transparency that accompanies it are the very reasons that a firm like ours is in business.  In the digital ecosystem, this complexity intensifies exponentially.  More publishers, more KPIs, more measurement and research vendors, more advertising technologies, more fraud.  Just more.  And all of it changing from one week to the next.

Despite all of this complexity, we often note a tendency (perhaps human nature) to take things at face value.  “You are a publisher, or you represent publishers.  You are offering to sell me an audience.  You are telling me how much audience you will sell me, and what it will cost.  Therefore, I must be buying your audience.”  Seems like a reasonable assumption, but it just happens to have been made in a supply chain so complex that parties on the buy side sometimes don’t even know what questions to ask.

What Should Advertisers Do?

Dr. Nathaniel Branden:  “The first step toward change is awareness.”  The ANA is encouraging agencies to educate their clients on this issue and clients to take steps to protect their media investments.Here are some specific steps clients can take to address sourced traffic:

  • Ask your agency about it. Are they aware of it?  How much does it impact the publishers with whom you invest media dollars?
  • Request that your agency include reporting in post-buys on sourced vs. unsourced traffic. Assess the quality of any sourced traffic (for bots, viewability, etc.).
  • Understand which publishers leverage sourced traffic and to what degrees. Be especially diligent with smaller publishers, who have less direct audience to sell in the first place.
  • Work with your agency to establish realistic campaign goals by publisher. Are you trying to buy more than a publisher is likely to have available to sell to you?  Guess where they are going to make up the difference.  When appropriate, consider KPIs other than reach/impressions.
  • Establish formal guidelines on sourced traffic (limits, expected practices, etc.) and share them with agencies and publishers. Include expectations for transparency around sourced traffic in performance reporting from publishers.
  • If you aren’t comfortable with the level of transparency you have into your digital media buys, consider bringing in an expert third party to assist.

The ANA also encouraged advertisers to support the Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG) initiative to introduce guidelines for publishers to report their traffic sources via its Publisher Sourcing Disclosure Requirements.

We should close by saying that we have absolutely nothing against sardines.  Sardines are great.  Well, you know, not great.  But they’re fine.  When you buy a jelly doughnut, though, you should get a jelly doughnut.  And if, for some reason, they have to switch over to sardines because they’re running low on jelly doughnuts, that should be transparent to you and your organization.  Because we’re talking about a heck of a lot of doughnuts here.Don’t shoot the messenger.

If you found this post informative, you might also like “Media Agencies and the Principal-Based Buying Conundrum”.  

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