Weekly News Roundup: Facebook’s Ad Algorithm Problem, The State of Data, The Future of the Long Tail

Facebook’s Content Problem Is an Ad Problem, Too

Couple fresh dispatches from the “You Can’t Automate Everything” beat: Facebook is catching heat over ads both weird and fraudulent on its platform. The Daily Beast’s Taylor Lorenz published a detailed exploration of the bizarre, impractical products (cat blindfolds? Plastic doodads of indeterminate shape? A hoodie that says “COCAINE” on the front?) pushed out onto Facebook by ecommerce site Wish, a major spender in Facebook ads. The weird product examples reminded me of what happens whenever I sort shopping search results from lowest to highest price, and get a page full of links to items that aren’t quite what I’m looking for. Lorenz called the ads “advertising clickbait,” and they are—while Wish also has plenty of “normal” products for sale, people ended up clicking on the WTF-variety ads, and the Facebook algorithm rewarded that performance by showing the same ads to more users. According to Wish’s CEO Peter Szulczewski, this was not the company’s strategy (“No one is going to buy a plastic tongue thing”). But Lorenz explained this is a side effect of Facebook’s dynamic ad product, which lets companies upload their whole catalog, and lets the algorithm determine who sees ads for which product. Problem is, it’s hard to make an algorithm understand the human psychological drive to laugh at weird things on the internet.

ProPublica has a more grave report this week: Its Political Ad Collector has turned up politically-charged malvertizing campaigns on Facebook. These ads have headlines and ledes that make “provocative statements about hot-button figures” in politics and punditry. But they lead not to news articles, but to fake malware alerts (complete with a phone number to have the malware removed, natch) or dodgy dietary supplement sites. Sounds like the mid/late-‘00s all over again—anyone want to get Rickrolled while we’re at it?

All year, the media industry has been talking about how Facebook needs to clean up its fake news problem. Obviously it’s not just content that needs human oversight, but ads too. These stories this week underline the perils of trusting algorithms to do right by rewarding high click-through rates. Earlier this year, Facebook announced it was hiring 3,000 humans to review content on its platform and another 1,000 to review ads. Hope that helps—this is a big job.

State of Data: Audience Data More Expensive to Activate Than Accumulate

Winterberry Group released a new report, “The State of Data 2017,” developed in partnership with the DMA and IAB. The report is geared toward both publishers and marketers, and it aims to shine a light on the differences between the accumulation of data and data intelligence itself. Basically, it suggests publishers and marketers’ ability to get actionable insights from data lags behind their ability to get their hands on the data. This is probably not a surprise, but this report is a handy snapshot of this part of the industry—you can get a sense of how your business stands relative to the whole digital business landscape. Some takeaways: Companies are spending more money on “services and technology offered by third-party providers to support the activation of audience data” than on the data itself. They’re spending about as much money on data hosting and managing tools as they are on processing and integrating data.

Paraphrasing the report: Data budgets themselves don’t explain everything about how data is made actionable, or the challenges publishers and marketers face in, say, walled-garden environments. But the availability of audience data tells us something about the importance audience data will have in the future for publishers and marketers. So, in other words, we know data is important… but not all of us understand why, or how. Did I get that right?

Misadventures in the Long Tail

In an AdExchanger column this week, Belinda J. Smith, Electronic Arts’ Global Director of Media Activation, called for a re-assessment of the long tail in programmatic. The long tail used to be held up as a place to find quality, niche content, on sites that normally wouldn’t have been on buyers’ radar and that probably didn’t even have direct sales teams. Marketers were told they could go to the long tail to find the same audiences they’d find on premium sites, but for so much cheaper. Now, Smith says, “it pains me to say this as a longtime programmatic advocate, I believe we’ve swung the pendulum too far in the other direction. We’ve almost completely abandoned the massive importance of content and context.” Fraudsters, bot programmers and clickbait producers have become so much more sophisticated and efficient, she says, and the long tail is where they hang out. Smith recommends brands re-evaluate how they connect with audiences, based on performance, unique reach, relevance, viewability/fraud, and whitelisting. It’s hard to disagree with Smith on this—and when I think about speakers and presenters we’ve invited to AdMonsters events this past year, I recall the drumbeat for recognizing the importance of context and quality content getting louder and louder. Some folks in the industry have suggested it’s smart for marketers to lop off the long tail entirely, but there’s still a place for those kinds of buys—they just need to be conducted more strategically and intelligently. Let’s all turn to the ad tech vendors in the room: What are you all doing to keep your supply clean? We’re counting on SSPs and exchanges here. Keeping out the crap is part of you’re getting paid for.

Buy More Without Leaving the Driver’s Seat

One generation’s sci-fi influences the next generation’s lived reality, and now GM allows drivers to make purchases on the car dashboard, even while the car is in motion. Through GM’s Marketplace app on the vehicle’s infotainment system, you can order from chain restaurants or GM’s own product/accessories line. The company says it’ll be rolling out gas purchases and updates for routine car services (provided the driver/user opts in) in 2018. Also, a GM assures us it’s “not meant to be an in-vehicle digital billboard,” for anyone who has nightmare visions of ads appearing on every available surface. Is this a glorified stunt? Seems like it, for now. Is there an opportunity for another app provider that’s already wired into the car’s system? Could be.