Audience Verification – What’s the Deal?

There has been a lot of buzz lately about ad verification in the digital space.  The media is writing about it, publishers and agencies are arguing about it, clients are asking questions about it, and providers are pushing it.  The IAB even recently hosted a half-day conference to address this topic. For years now, there has been much talk about digital being more accountable and more measurable than all other media, so this is just a basic evolution of the way we do business….a natural progression of sorts.

Applied correctly, verification can have a very positive effect on the entire industry.  It can help bring more credibility to a space that, in some cases, really needs it.  Many marketers today are still hesitant to fully dedicate themselves to digital media for fear of a variety of things going wrong with their ad campaign – from ads being hidden behind other ads, to placement on inappropriate content, to a complete miss against the demographic target. These are all understandable concerns, although not nearly as prevalent as is sometimes portrayed in the press.

As it stands now, there are two main groupings of verification services: Content and Audience.  Content Verification seems to get the lion’s share of publicity because it seems more dramatic—catching a publisher or network serving an ad against pornographic content is much more newsworthy than learning that your target audience was missed by 17.5%.  But Audience Verification can be just as important, if not more so, which is why I am going to focus on it here.

Audience Verification tools give advertisers the ability to see the demographic makeup of the audience viewing their ads, while stripping out any personally identifiable information (PII).  Age, gender, and education are the basics, but this can also include household income, geography, home ownership, marital status, presence of children, and the list goes on.  Some services do this by matching a browser cookie (a small piece of text that is dropped onto someone’s hard drive upon visiting a website) with a backend database, and others do it by tracking behavior with a pre-defined panel.

These types of tools can be used in a few different ways.  First, if a particular placement is specifically targeted to a demographic audience,  you can ensure that you are getting what was agreed upon in the insertion order.   There could be financial penalties or makegood assurances tied to this type of placement when the target is missed, but either way there should be a cushion built in to allow for discrepancies in reporting – nothing is ever 100%.

Secondly, if a placement is broadly targeted across a site or network, the verification system can let you know if you are reaching the right audience based on the site composition.  For example, if you are serving a run-of-site placement on (a fictitious site), and their media kit claims that their composition is 80% female, then that’s what you would expect for that placement (or close to it).  A verification tool will let you know if this is indeed in the case, or if they are running your media in the Fatherhood section because there is no inventory left in the women-focused areas of the site.

A third way Audience Verification can be used is to monitor and measure actual campaign performance

Many of these tools offer a real-time reporting system that will let you see the demographic makeup of the people clicking and converting at the highest rate.  Conventional wisdom may tell you that your target audience is Women 18-24, but you may learn that the audience responding most positively to a particular campaign is, in fact, Men 35-39.  Monitoring and tracking the demographic data can lead to surprising results, and will enable you to optimize and increase efficiencies on the fly.

It is my recommendation that in any of the above scenarios the media agency does NOT wait until the end of the campaign to inform the publisher of the findings.  The goal of using these tools is not to “catch” media partners doing something wrong, and then demand a makegood after the fact.  In fact, quite the opposite, the goal is to avoid the need for any makegoods by monitoring campaigns regularly to ensure maximum coverage of your target audience.  Planning teams should monitor results often (weekly if possible) to make sure the media is landing in front of the right audience, and if it is not, then a conversation should happen between agency and media partner.

For services that have an online reporting tool, agencies should provide publishers with direct access so they can monitor the campaign themselves.  Again, the goal is to course correct as necessary during the campaign, not wait until the end and see how the campaign delivered.  The beauty of digital is that we can do this on an ongoing and real-time basis, and we should take full advantage of that ability.

Media owners should also be notified ahead of time that a particular campaign will be monitored and verified, and the provider and methodology fully disclosed.  Each of these verification systems uses a different methodology, and potential discrepancies with the publisher’s audience measurement tool should be discussed beforehand.   There should be no secrets, and all details should be shared upfront.  Transparency and open dialogue between agencies and media owners is the best practice here, and will ensure that we are all working together to increase the overall effectiveness of digital media.

Editor’s note: This blog post originally appeared on the UM Blog.

Want to learn more? View a recording of the AdMonsters’ webcast on Verification Services featuring Mitchell Weinstein and Julian Zilberbrand: