How Ad-Tech Is Fighting Bot Fraud to Make Social Media Marketing as Safe as Media Content

Outfits including Oracle, OMD and Influential form Bot Fraud Prevention Council

Advertisers are asking more and more questions about bots on social media Getty Images
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The net is closing in on fraudsters preying on the online advertising industry with indictments brought against those allegedly involved in perpetrating such crimes in recent years, notably the recent 3ve case is a high profile example.

This awakening was brought on by increased action from public bodies such as the FBI aided by help from some of the industry’s most significant names, such as Google, and perpetuated by some of the most powerful marketers in the world voicing their dissatisfaction over the problem.

Much of the recent public discussion on fraud in the marketing industry has centered on the phenomena of offenders using malware to run automated ad fraud schemes–understandable given that such deceits are forecast to cost the industry more than $50 billion by 2025, according to the World Federation of Advertisers. But, thus far, comparatively little has been spoken of efforts to crack down on the issue of fraudsters employing bots to perform similar malfeasance in the realm of social media marketing.

However, this is beginning to change as marketers in charge at some of the largest-spending brands on social media speak publicly on the matter. For instance, last year the soon-to-depart Unilever CMO Keith Weed voiced his displeasure/suspicion over online “influencers” buying fake followers to inflate their audience reach at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity.

Add to this a growing public awareness of the role that bots play in powering social networks and the need for industry-action is clear, failure to do so risks the complete loss of trust, ergo legitimacy, according to Weed.

Launch of BFPC

That’s why companies including media agency OMD, Oracle Data Cloud and Influential are among the founding members of the Bot Fraud Prevention Council, an initiative geared towards restoring trust in social media as a marketing medium.

Organized by social media marketing firm Influential, BFPC aims to do so by agreeing on tech and measurement standards that can help marketers identify bot accounts, ensure their removal from social media platforms and also devise authoritative audience engagement metrics.

BFPC plans to achieve such goals by working with Trustworthy Accountability Group, a cross-body trade organization commissioned by the ANA, IAB and 4A’s to help combat fraud, to form a centralized hub for advertisers and TAG members where they can share management techniques such as measurement methodologies and a blacklist of major offenders.

Other founding members of BFPC include blockchain specialists Lucidity, measurement outfit IRI and WME, with Ryan Detert, CEO of Influential conceding there is a “massive problem” in measuring the effectiveness of social media, adding that the goal was to have conversations around transparency on media, not just on social.

“We took it on ourselves, along with OMD, to go out and speak to a larger community of people that each has a level of expertise in their own domain to provide a level of insight that others cannot,” he said.

Media-level transparency

Primarily, the participants’ activity will begin with sharing their respective expertise to help aggregate benchmark levels of fraud in the wider space and then help marketers gain a broader understanding of how to achieve a better ROI on their social media activity.

Kerry Perse, OMD, managing director, told Adweek that concerns from advertisers over fraudulent activity on social had begun to “bubble up” over the last two years and that much of the conversations she has with clients are around mitigating risk when working with influencers on such platforms.

“When we think about what type of influencer to work with there are a couple of factors that we consider and bots, either the composition of bot followers or bot activity [from an account itself], are definitely an aspect of it,” she said.

“So, while we look at influencers differently than we do [premium] media properties … one of the reasons that we joined the council was that we want to make sure we bring media-level accountability to influencer marketing.”

Sharing insights

Mike Zaneis, TAG, CEO, said the BFPC will work alongside the TAG threat exchange, an initiative geared towards combating click fraud that will rollout out over 2019 and  exclusively reported upon by Adweek, and underlined the importance of working with trusted partners.

“There’s a reason why companies like Procter & Gamble will only work with TAG-certified partners,” he said. “Because that way they know who they are working with and can be better assured they are protecting brand against fraud.”

TAG’s threat exchange works as a common platform that lets buy- and sell-side ad-tech companies communicate different types of attacks they observe on the market with their peers, as well as law enforcement. Zaneis explained some of its machinations with Adweek, adding that there has been an uptick of inbound inquiries from marketers on policing such fraudulent activity in recent months.

“Let’s say ‘ad exchange A’ identified a set of IP addresses that are associated with a botnet. They share those IP addresses on the TAG threat exchange, and then everybody immediately knows to look for any traffic coming from them.”

However, some sources note the need for a systemic change in industry dynamics to significantly impact the financial losses incurred to fraudsters. Shailin Dhar, CEO of Method Media Intelligence, highlighted the fact that there is no universally agreed upon definition of what constitutes “a bot.” For instance, Google uses “legitimate bots” to search through and index web pages as a potential barrier for the industry to tackle.

Dhar added, “You cannot wait for the problem [of ad fraud] to be solved by law enforcement, one thing is that you have to start to look at is who are the people that are buying the traffic coming up with things like blacklists [alone] just won’t solve the problem.”

@ronan_shields Ronan Shields is a programmatic reporter at Adweek, focusing on ad-tech.