NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Even Santa checks his list twice. Online marketers are doing the same.
As more brands shift to buying audiences online rather than buying specific sites, a mini industry of verification services has sprung up to ensure the ads that are increasingly placed through ad networks and exchanges are appearing where they're supposed to.
After all, everyone in the business has heard a variation on the same horror story: "My cereal ad ran next to porn," "My burger spot ran on the PETA site" or "My ad never ran."
Those scenarios don't make brand managers too happy, so agencies such as Hill Holliday, Group M, Omnicom and others have signed up ad verification services from a growing roster of players that are becoming the new cops of the online ad business.
These internet police are necessary because those ad-placement horror stories have turned off a lot of brands from buying remnant and so-called tier-two inventory, said John Montgomery, chief operating officer of Group M Interaction, which partnered with both AdSafe and DoubleVerify recently to both verify and prevent unwanted placements.
"We have been trying to assume more responsibility for where the ad appears," he said. "What verification will do is make the internet a safer place for branded advertisers to use tier-two inventory and that can be a terrific thing for their business."
The concern over placement is well-founded, and the ad verifiers do a brisk business by showing marketers where they're ads are actually running.
Kent Wakeford, co-founder and chief revenue officer with AdSafe, said he's come across the following ad placements on the Web: major auto companies on pornographic pages, insurance companies on escort-services websites, and a telecom firm on a white supremacist site, among other examples. Geography is also an issue and AdSafe has unearthed ads for U.S.-only mortgage products running in Latin America. Similarly, many ad networks syndicate ads for pharmaceuticals outside of the U.S. -- and that can run afoul of regulations.
"That is completely wasted inventory," Mr. Wakeford said.
On an average buy across an ad exchange or ad network, about 5% to 15% of the ads fall on potentially objectionable pages or outside of the campaign's geo-targets, he said.
That's why verification services are in demand. In addition to DoubleVerify and AdSafe, other players of note include AdXpose, RealVU, PerformLine, Media Trust Co., Adometry, Brand.net, Ad Pepper and Proximic.
The technology and capabilities vary widely, but in addition to after-the-fact checking, many also block inappropriate placements from appearing in the first place.
In the growing online-video business, verification is sorely needed because both fraud and poor placements have caused some major brands to hold off on spending on web video, said Tod Sacerdoti, CEO of Brightroll, who contends that as much as one-third of online video ads are served in low-quality environments. He said Brightroll provides reports to clients on where every ad runs.
"This category is dependent on dollars moving from TV, and if one-third of all ads are served in a way that is far less valuable, then that slows the growth and migration [of ad dollars]," he said.
Media buyers agree that verification services can shepherd more money into online-video advertising. "In all our research we have found the environment ads are in really does matter for effectiveness of the ad," said Adam Cahill, senior VP-director of digital media at Hill Holliday.
Online video faces its own set of placement challenges, Mr. Sacerdoti added. Some ad networks will count an impression even if a video ad plays without sound. Others run invisible ads in "1 by 1 pixel" frames. In other cases, ads that are billed as "pre-rolls" play next to text rather than in front of video content.
Agencies need to review the sites in their media plans down to a URL level, Mr. Sacerdoti said.
Advertisers and agencies should also work with ad networks that have policies and procedures in place regarding ad placement, said Shane Steele, VP-marketing at video ad network Tremor Media.
"We have policies down to the level of placement -- above the fold, below the fold, click to play and so on," she explained. An ad network also needs a remediation policy if something goes wrong, she added.
So who possibly stands to lose as verification services proliferate? Oddly enough, the premium publishers that have long used safety as a selling point -- and as justification for high ad rates. "For advertisers employing ad networks where they don't know where their ads are going to run, they would probably benefit from employing these verification technologies," said Pam Horan, president of the Online Publisher's Association.
Not for all
Yet publishers themselves are deploying the technology to assure they don't unknowingly accept ads that contain spyware or other malicious software.
Verification can benefit the whole industry by exposing the bad seeds, said Mike Cassidy, CEO of Undertone Networks. "Verification is a great thing because it highlights the fact that there are a lot of unscrupulous players out there," he said.
However, not every campaign needs to be verified, he said. An advertiser running spots on several ad networks or using a lot of remnant inventory would be wise to turn on verification tools. For marketers buying on a few select publishers, verification may not be necessary, Mr. Cassidy said.
In the end though, verification can only help the market, said Ramsey McGrory, VP of North American Marketplaces at Yahoo, which owns the premium ad exchange Right Media. "If you create a more well-lit, trusted environment, then brands are more likely to spend a lot of dollars," he said.
How to protect your brand online: Top five tips from ad networks
Not all ad networks are created equal, so do your homework before choosing one. Understand where their inventory comes from and how they plan to fill your buy. Research whether a network syndicates its ads across the web or delivers them to specific sites, which is a safer option.
MAXIMIZE YOUR AD SERVER
Many ad servers do more than just deliver ads and provide analytics. Some also have verification tools, which can add a layer of security.
HOLD YOUR AD NETWORK ACCOUNTABLE
Create a selection process to weed out low-value networks. Networks are increasingly holding "upfronts" to allow their bigger partners to book inventory ahead of time and allow a client or agency to disseminate network recommendations throughout the organization.
If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is. If you're buying inventory at one-third the market price, you're probably buying shoddy sites.
MIX UP THE MEASUREMENT
Monitor time spent within the ad or on the site, the number of transactions and the long-term value of a customer. Then assign various weights based on your criteria to determine which measurement approach makes sense for your brand.
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