The FTC Cracks Down on Native Advertising Abuse

But what difference will it make? Only time will tell …

FTIt had to happen: After years of publications uploading native advertising content that’s barely labeled as such, the Federal Trade Commission has handed down new guidelines that leave very little wiggle room in what constitutes proper labeling of paid advertising material.

Published under the title Enforcement Policy Statement on Deceptively Formatted Advertisements, the FTC’s new guidelines, which run more than 10 pages in length, make it more difficult than ever to “camouflage” advertising as “legitimate” news content.

What it boils down to is the stipulation that any sponsored content must be clearly labeled as advertising – using wording that the vast majority of readers will understand instantly.

Here’s how the FTC guidelines describe it:

“Terms likely to be understood include ‘Ad,’ ‘Advertisement,’ ‘Paid Advertisement,’ ‘Sponsored Advertising Content,’ or some variation thereof. Advertisers should not use terms such as ‘Promoted’ or “Promoted Stories,’ which in this context are, at best, ambiguous and potentially could mislead consumers that advertising content is endorsed by a publisher site.”

Another key provision is warning against advertising content mimicking the look and feel of surrounding editorial content – things like the layout characteristics, headline design treatment, the use of fonts and photography.

And here’s another kicker: the FTC lumps offending advertisers in the same pile as the people who create the materials, in that its policy statement doesn’t apply just to advertisers.  So ad agencies, MarComm companies and graphic designers, beware.

Quoting again from the FTC document:

“In appropriate circumstances the FTC has taken action against other parties who helped create deceptive advertising content – for example, ad agencies and operators of affiliate advertising networks. Everyone who participates directly or indirectly in creating or presenting native ads should make sure that ads don’t mislead consumers about their commercial nature. 

“Marketers who use native advertising have a particular interest in ensuring that anyone participating in the promotion of their products is familiar with the basic truth-in-advertising principle that an ad should be identifiable as an ad to consumers.”

Of course, these new guidelines are only going to make it harder for advertisers – and publishers – to be able to utilize advertising techniques that have, up to now, been far more effective than online display advertising.

iab-logoPredictably, we’re hearing mealy-mouthed statements from the industry in response. A spokesperson for the Interactive Advertising Bureau had this to say:

“While guidance serves great benefit to the industry, it must also be technically feasible, creatively relevant, and not stifle innovation. To that end, we have reservations about some elements of the Commission’s guidance.”

What bothers the Interactive Advertising Bureau in particular is the “plain language” provisions in the FTC’s guidelines, which IAB considers “overly descriptive.”

Translation: there’s concern that publishers can no longer label advertising using such euphemisms as “partner content” or “promoted post.”

Others seem less concerned, however. Sites such as Mashable and Huffington Post appear to be onboard with the new guidelines.

Besides, as one spokesperson said, “When the FTC issues guidelines, you’re better off when you follow them than when you don’t.”

… That sounds about right.

Consumer E-Mail Marketing: Too Much of a Good Thing?

igAdvertisers often complain about the drawbacks of online display advertising — and it’s not hard to figure out why.

Online display ad viewability, which is defined by the Media Rating Council as at least 50% of an ad’s pixels being in-view for at least one continuous second, is running under 45% these days — meaning that fewer than half of online display ads meet the definition of being viewable.

That’s actually a lower percentage than before; viewability charted closer to 50% in 2014, according to the global media valuation platform Integral Ad Science.

Because of these middling viewability rates, many advertisers look to e-mail marketing as the panacea. Not only is e-mail marketing inexpensive, the rational goes, it’s also more likely to attract and engage recipients.

But here too, the evidence is that there is mediocre visibility, too. And in this case, it’s actual willful ignorance.

According to the results of a study conducted earlier this year by business technology research firm Technology Advice, ~40% of the ~1,300 U.S. adults surveyed reported that they completely ignore marketing-oriented e-mails.

Of the ~60% who reported that they do open marketing e-mails, only a little over 15% do so on a regular basis.

Here’s a breakdown of the underwhelming stats that were gathered by Technology Advice:

  • ~58% of recipients read from 0 to 25% of marketing-oriented e-mails sent to them
  • ~21% read 25% to 50% of the marketing e-mail sent to them
  • ~13% read 50% to 75% of them
  • Just ~8% read 75% to 100% of them

In an attempt to “juice” these figures, marketers are experimenting with robust personalization in e-mails that become evident even before anyone opens them (e.g., personalization showing in the subject line), along with offering clearly marked discounts and other promo attractions.

In this regard, consumers do expect businesses to provide “value” in exchange for their attention, which explains by ~40% of the survey’s respondents are responding to discounts and similar promotional offers above all other types of e-communiqués.

But with such modest levels of people interacting with any marketing-oriented e-mails at all, there’s a question as to how whether these ploys to improvement engagement are just nibbling around the edges.

Because the reality is, there’s a big portion of the market that’s become jaded about e-mail.

Another approach seems counter-intuitive but just might be working better: reducing the frequency of e-mail solicitations from advertisers.  That theory is supported by the Technology Advice research, which found that nearly 45% of respondents feel that businesses would improve their marketing effectiveness by actually sending them less frequent e-mails.

A case of “less is more”? Probably so.

The Ad Fraud Gravy Train Keeps Chugging Along — No Matter What …

xbnAd fraud is quite a large issue for online advertisers – and it’s been on many companies’ radar screens for a long time.

But even with the higher visibility and greater scrutiny of online ad fraud, it seems to be a problem that only gets bigger.

The most recent example of the phenomenon came to light a few weeks ago, when ad fraud prevention consulting firm Pixalate announced that a newly discovered botnet has been draining literally billions of dollars from advertisers’ MarComm coffers.

The botnet is dubbed Xindi – the same name as the hostile aliens in the Star Trek sci-fi TV series.

Xindi is making money for its creators by serving actual ads – but to simulated audiences.  It has spread via familiar methods such as phishing.

Pixalate estimates that just shy of 78 billion fake ad impressions have been racked up so far.  Even at low cost-per-impression revenue figures, the high volume amounts to several billions of dollars of illicit revenues siphoned (and counting).

What makes the Xindi botnet particularly nettlesome is that it’s designed to go after computers and networks at high-end organizations, enabling it to “mimic” desirable web traffic (i.e. affluent consumers).

xbotAccording to Pixalate, already there could be as many as 8 million computers compromised in more than 5,000 networks, including a goodly number of Fortune 500 companies as well as university and governmental networks.

Such desirable locations and ad audiences translate into lucrative online ad pricing (CPMs of $200 or more).

In the event, advertisers are paying high prices … for nothing.

To counteract Xindi, Pixalate recommends that the Internet Advertising Bureau update its protocols to factor in the pace of ad requests, so that impression generated after a certain time period cannot be accepted as valid — and hence would be non-billable.

Whether this or other remedies will actually happen is up in the air at the moment (the IAB isn’t onboard with the recommendations).

Either way, what seems clear is that whatever the remedial actions that are taken, burgeoning ad fraud activity is bound to continue.

The question is, can it ever be contained, or will it just continue to grow and grow?  If you have any thoughts or ideas on the challenge, please share them with other readers.

On the march: Ad blocking tools continue their rise in popularity.

What Adblock PromisesI’ve blogged before about the rise of online ad blocking tools and their growing popularity with consumers.

One example:  AdTrap – a device that intercepts online ads before they reach any devices that access a person’s Internet connection.

AdTrap’s motto is simple and powerful:  “The Internet is yours again.”

In the months and years since I first blogged about it, ad blocking has only become more popular – so much so that it’s no longer just a mild irritant to advertisers and publishers, but rather a commercial threat that has a significant impact on publishers’ financial bottom lines.

It’s hardly surprising.  Most people want to run as far away from advertising as they can.  For years, we’ve taken trips to the kitchen or bathroom during TV commercial breaks.  We’ve TiVo’d ads out of existence.

And the participation levels in online ad blocking bear this out now as well.  According to data from PageFair, a company that measures publishers’ ad blocking rates and provides alternative non-intrusive advertising options, the number of ad blocker tool users reached nearly 145 million people in 2014.

That’s more than five times the 21 million users of ad blocker tools we had in 2010.

Growth continues apace:  Adblock Plus, which is the biggest of the ad blocking tools, reports more than 2.3 million downloads each week, on average.

Where are people blocking online ads?  In all sorts of areas.  But the most frequent incidence of ad blocking is on gaming sites, where blocking rates are in excess of 50%.

But blocking is happening on other online sites, too, including entertainment, fashion and lifestyle sites – albeit at about half the degree as on gaming sites.

[Tellingly, ad blocking is happening on technology sites, too, where about a quarter of the ads are being blocked.]

One of the more interesting nuggets of information reported by PageFair is the difference in ad blocking rates by country.  What we see is that Americans lag well-behind a number of other countries:

  • Argentina: ~34 of online ads are blocked
  • Poland: ~34% are blocked
  • Sweden: ~33%
  • Finland: ~32%
  • Germany: ~30%
  • United States: ~15%

Germany, in particular, has been the scene of several fervent legal skirmishes in recent years.  There, the publisher of the news magazine Die Zeit sued the parent company of AdBlock, claiming that the ad blocking tool is “illegal and anti-competitive.”  (The suit went nowhere, incidentally.)

Some observers speculate that the higher incidence of ad blocking in certain countries may be tied to those nations’ sociological profiles.  “I personally suspect that in some of these countries, citizens are more concerned about their personal privacy – perhaps for historical reasons,” Sean Blanchfield, PageFair’s CEO, has remarked.

One might wonder if, in the age of Edward Snowden and the Patriot Act (now superseded by new legislation ironically called the “USA Freedom Act”), Americans’ ad blocking practices might now be poised to align more closely with Europeans’.

I imagine we’ll know more about that degree of convergence within a year or two.

What people dislike most about B-to-B websites …

Too many business-to-business websites remain the “poor stepchildren” of the online world even after all these years.

btob websitesSo much attention is devoted to all the great ways retailers and other companies in consumer markets are delighting their customers online.

And it stands to reason:  Those sites are often intrinsically more interesting to focus on and talk about.

Plus, the companies that run those sites go the extra mile to attract and engage their viewers.  After all, consumers can easily click away to another online resource that offers a more compelling and satisfying experience.

Or, as veteran marketing specialist Denison ‘Denny’ Hatch likes to say, “You’re just one mouse-click away from oblivion.”

By comparison, buyers in the B-to-B sphere often have to slog through some pretty awful website navigation and content to find what they’re seeking.  But because their mission is bigger than merely viewing a website for the fun of it, they’ll put up with the substandard online experience anyway.

But this isn’t to say that people are particularly happy about it.

Through my company’s longstanding involvement with the B-to-B marketing world, I’ve encountered plenty of the “deficiencies” that keep business sites from connecting with their audiences in a more fulfilling way.

Sometimes the problems we see are unique to a particular site … but more often, it’s the “SOS” we see across many of them (if you’ll pardon the scatological acronym).

Broadly speaking, issues of website deficiency fall into five categories:

  • They run too slowly.
  • They look like something from the web world’s Neanderthal era.
  • They make it too difficult for people to locate what they’re seeking on the site.
  • Worse yet, they actually lack the information visitors need.
  • They look horrible when viewed on a mobile device — and navigation is no better.

Fortunately, each of these problems can be addressed – often without having to do a total teardown and rebuild.

But corporate inertia can (and often does) get in the way.

Sometimes big changes like Google’s recent “Mobilegeddon” mobile-friendly directives come along that nudge companies into action.  In times like that, it’s often when other needed adjustments and improvements get dealt with as well.

But then things can easily revert back to near-stasis mode until the next big external pressure point comes down the pike and stares people in the face.

Some of this pattern of behavior is a consequence of the commonly held (if erroneous) view that B-to-B websites aren’t ones that need continual attention and updating.

I’d love for more people to reject that notion — if for SEO relevance issues alone.  But after nearly three decades of working with B-to-B clients, I’m pretty much resigned to the fact that there’ll always be some of that dynamic at work.  It just comes with the territory.

Banking on Facebook: The social media giant makes its first moves into the credit-card payments business.

untitledRecently, I blogged about how Google’s efforts to expand its business activities beyond pay-per-click advertising — thereby diversifying its revenue stream — haven’t borne much fruit.

In 2011, ~96% of Google’s revenues came from PPC advertising.  In 2014, it’s ~97%.

But Google isn’t the only behemoth whose income is completely tied to advertising.  Over at Facebook, ~93% of the company’s more than ~12 billion in revenues come from advertising as well.

Compared to Google, Facebook is a relative newcomer to the advertising game.  But once it got in on the action, its growth was very robust.

In 2014 alone, Facebook’s advertising revenues were up 58% over the previous year.

But … there’s a bit of a problem.  In a world where advertising revenues are tied to “eyeballs,“ Facebook’s user growth isn’t on the right trajectory.  When the network has nearly 1.5 billion active users already, there’s not a lot of room for expansion.

This is reflected in Facebook’s Q4 year-over-year percentage growth stats as published by Mediassociates, a media planning and buying agency:

  • 2009: ~260% year-over-year growth
  • 2010: ~69% growth
  • 2011: ~39% growth
  • 2012: ~25% growth
  • 2013: ~16% growth
  • 2014: ~13% growth

One can easily imagine 2015’s growth figure dipping into the single digits, giving Facebook all the hallmarks of being a mature company in a maturing market.

But the always-enterprising folks at Facebook have had something up their sleeve which they’re rolling out to the market now:  getting into the multi-billion credit-card payments business.

Facebook send money appThey’re starting small:  introducing a “send-friends-money” functionality to Facebook’s Messenger app.  But this rather innocuous addition hardly does justice to Facebook’s end-game strategy.

When you think about it, Facebook’s aims make a lot of sense.  With nearly 1.5 billion active users around the world, Facebook’s accounts make PayPal’s ~162 million active accounts seem pretty paltry by comparison.

But revenue from PayPal’s transaction tolls isn’t chump change at all:  nearly $8 billion last year alone.

Without doubt, Facebook is also looking at the huge amount of business done by American Express and VISA; think of the billions of dollars those companies earn by charging merchants between 2% and 3.5% on the value of each credit-card transaction.

Facebook’s entry into the business can be facilitated neatly through its Messenger mobile app, making it just as easy (or easier) to pay for goods and services as with a credit card.

Considering that Facebook’s users with mobile phones are already spending time on the network an average of an hour per day, it’s pretty easy to see how people could make the transition from traditional credit and debit card payments to using their Facebook app for precisely the same purposes.

And Facebook could sweeten the pot by working with retailers and marketers to offer real cash loads that would likely juice participation even more – sort of a cash rebate in advance of the purchase rather than afterward.

So we shouldn’t think of Facebook’s new “send-friends-money” feature as a one-off function.

Instead, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.  If I were a manager at VISA or AmEx, I’d be thinking long and hard about the real motivations – and real implications – of Facebook’s latest moves.

It’s Official: Cyber Monday 2014 was the Biggest e-Commerce Day in U.S. History

Cyber Monday ShoppingIn the days following Black Friday this year, we heard reports that consumer purchase volumes at stores were down more than 10% compared to 2013.

A number of explanations for the decline were given, among them the notion that Black Friday sales are less of a draw this year, since merchandise sales now begin before Thanksgiving and tend to run the entire month of December.

But some observers speculated as to whether soft Black Friday revenue figures presage an equally soft holiday shopping season overall.

Well … now that we have sales figures from Cyber Monday (the Monday following Black Friday weekend), I think it’s safe to say that any concerns about a tepid holiday buying season are unfounded.

Custora E-Commerce Pulse, a customer relationship management firm which tracked more than 100 million online shoppers and over $40 billion in e-commerce revenue over the full Thanksgiving Holiday weekend, has just reported that Cyber Monday e-commerce revenues were up over 15% compared with Cyber Monday 2013.

That makes Cyber Monday 2014 the single biggest day in U.S. online shopping ever in history.

Other days of the Thanksgiving weekend also showed robust gains in online shopping:  Black Friday online sales were up ~21% over 2013, and online shopping on Thanksgiving Day itself were up nearly 18% over Thanksgiving Day in 2013.

The strong growth was fueled by mobile shopping, e-mail marketing, plus online product searches on Google and other search engines.

In particular, mobile shopping accounted for ~22% of orders on Cyber Monday, significantly higher than the ~16% of orders recorded last year.

On Black Friday itself, mobile shopping accounted for around 30% of all orders — yet another dramatic increase over 2013 when mobile shopping account for just shy of 23% of orders.

This year’s Cyber Monday stats put the lie to the notion that e-mail marketing is losing its luster.  In fact, e-mail marketing drove nearly one in four online shopping orders, outstripping natural search (at ~19% of all orders) and paid search (~16% of orders).

Much ado about (practically) nothing: Social media and Cyber Monday.
Much ado about (practically) nothing: Social media and Cyber Monday.

And guess which channels weren’t a meaningful part of the holiday shopping experience this year?

If you guessed social media … you’re absolutely correct.

Taken together, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram accounted for only about 1.5% of online e-commerce orders on Cyber Monday.  (For the weekend as a whole, it was only slightly better at ~1.7%.)

This year’s statistics just add more confirmation of several truisms about online consumer marketing:

  • Targeted e-mail still works the best.
  • Online search is important.
  • Social media is like Lucy and the football.