Minimizing risk on the most efficient path

The rise of content consumption via Connected TVs (CTVs) was already a long-term, unavoidable trend before COVID-19 came along. Then streaming went through the roof in the weeks and months after stay-at-home orders went into effect.

What we used to do during our train or subway commutes started to be done on the big screens of our living rooms.

Digital marketers quickly adapted to changing consumer behavior as CTV supply grew, but unfortunately, so did fraudsters. Per eMarketer, CTV ad spending in the US is projected to reach $11.4 billion in 2021—up from $8.1 billion in 2020, while DoubleVerify reported a 161% spike in fraudulent CTV ad impressions year-over-year between January and April 2020.

This is especially troubling given the high prevalence of fraud before the pandemic when Pixalate reported that 22% of all programmatic OTT and CTV ad impressions were served as invalid traffic in 2019.

While DoubleVerify and Pixalate’s numbers have been dismissed by some as self-serving, even a fraction of what they reported would still be a big deal.

How do you win the living room without being vulnerable to fraud?

The key is a strategy that leverages in-depth knowledge of CTV-specific supply paths. At Hearts & Science, we have a team dedicated to supply, which not only improves efficiency through data-driven negotiations and complex spend distribution analysis but also through supply path acumen.

Having a CTV supply strategy sounds obvious, but marketers often don’t include in-depth inventory curation in their planning processes.

If they do curate inventory, they tend to pick an app or a set of apps based solely on name recognition or content type. That relatively simple approach still has a place in CTV supply strategy, but it should be undertaken in tandem with building a curated list of apps based on data and audience attributes to infer where users consume content.

If, for example, your target audience was sports fans, you would automatically include ESPN, NBC Sports and Turner. But since sports fans don’t only consume sports content, you might learn that your audience is also likely to be on apps like Discovery or CNN and reach them there as well.

Once that curated list is created, marketers can identify the most efficient, safest path to purchase impressions on those properties.

Here are a few guidelines to help you select paths with minimal risk while still capitalizing on the efficiencies and value programmatic buying can offer.

1. Stop buying CTV on the open exchange.

It might seem like a great deal, but the risk/reward trade-offs are not there. Most publications with premium CTV content sell out their inventory well before it can get to the open exchange. There are some mid-tier pubs, long-tail pubs and aggregators with decent inventory available on open exchanges, but you run the risk of buying a spoofed app.

Bear in mind that it’s extremely easy to spoof Bundle IDs since hardly any app publisher follows the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) industry standard. (DoubleVerify reports that only 20% of CTV auctions have app names that adhere to IAB conventions.) This makes it extremely tough to weed out the bad actors.

2. Stop buying CTV via resellers and aggregators.

Some aggregators offer enticing data, such as ACR and first- or third-party data, layered over a semitransparent list of apps or, even worse, obfuscate the apps altogether. Others offer to aggregate transparent inventory in a way that helps marketers achieve their goals, which can be hard to resist.

But while many aggregators are reputable, they ultimately don’t own the inventory they’re selling and can fall victim to the same fraud schemes perpetuated on open exchanges.

The safest, most efficient way to reach a CTV user is through a direct deal with the inventory’s owner, and marketers should push for complete transparency when working directly with any publisher.

If a publisher doesn’t surface the app in the bid request (or, at the very least, in the reporting), it should immediately be removed from plans.

App-level transparency should be table stakes—and at this stage in CTV’s evolution, we should be pushing for show-level transparency, which some publishers are working on.

3. Implement—or continue to implement—brand safety and verification services.

The challenge for verification companies is that CTV doesn’t allow for the same solutions and safeguards that come standard in digital; neither VPAID nor Ads.txt is supported in the CTV environment.

It’s relatively easy for fraudsters to spoof an app’s Bundle ID, create a fraudulent app, pretend to be a device like a smart TV and send out ad requests while never showing an ad to anyone—or simply to exploit the flaws in technology meant to improve the CTV experience.

Take server-side ad insertion (SSAI), which is meant to circumvent ad blocking and improve user experience by decreasing load times and buffering. However, it’s quite easy for fraudsters to mimic the third-party proxy servers that deliver ads through SSAI.

DoubleVerify, HUMAN and IAS have solutions that allow buyers to close the gap across the fragmented measurement ecosystem while analyzing and blocking fraudulent inventory.

They might not be able to stop fraudsters altogether, but DoubleVerify and HUMAN, respectively, have been instrumental in catching two of the largest CTV fraud schemes this year.

Third-party verification solutions should always be implemented in concert with well-known safeguards that exist across platforms like Google, The Trade Desk, Amazon and Xandr.

While the names and exact methodology of safeguards differ across companies, they have two major things in common. First, they’re scanning to proactively block access for flagged partners, and, second, they leverage a combination of human and automated intervention. The bottom line is that leveraging a verification solution without these safeguards, or vice versa, leaves you exposed.

Looking forward to living room wins

There’s no going back to February 2020, and consumption of CTV content will remain much higher than it was before the pandemic.

Cutting open exchanges and aggregators out of the equation while leveraging the best ad verification services available is how marketers can identify the safest, most efficient supply paths and, ultimately, win the living room.