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By Thomas Baekdal - February 2019

The importance of ad transparency for publishers

As you already know, over the past several years, we have seen a dramatic shift in terms of ad transparency. This has largely been the result of pressure from the press, as well as consumer protection organizations, demanding that people have a right to know why an ad is shown.

The change that we have seen has come in three forms.

Who paid?

The first change is that it is now required on many platforms to announce who paid for the ad. For instance, when Gal Gadot posts a picture that is actually part of a sponsored deal, she now has to announce this. And platforms like Instagram now have built-in tools to make that work.

Of course, today this is a legal requirement because it's no longer acceptable to pretend to like something when you were paid to say so. But there is a bigger trend behind this in that people no longer accept being fooled, so we demand to know, up-front, who paid for an ad.

This is even more true when it comes to political advertising, where 'who paid for this' disclosure is absolutely critical, and something we all demand (especially in the press).

But this is not just about influencers or political advertising, even when ads come directly from the brands themselves, we are now seeing a shift to more transparent disclosure.

For instance, when MasterClass advertises on Facebook, the ad format itself tells me that this is a 'sponsored post' and who it was that sponsored it.

In other words, the new standard is that we must be told who placed and paid for the ad.

How was it targeted?

The second level of ad transparency that is becoming the new normal is the ability for you to see exactly how an ad was targeted. It's no longer acceptable to just keep that a secret.

So, for instance, on Facebook you can click on the menu button on each ad and ask them why this specific ad was shown to you.

And, in my case, this ad was shown to me because MasterClass has uploaded their customer list to Facebook and used that as the targeting parameter.

One reason you're seeing this ad is that MasterClass added you to a list of people they want to reach on Facebook. They were able to reach you because you're on a customer list that was collected by MasterClass or you've provided them with your information off of Facebook.

There may be other reasons you're seeing this ad, including that MasterClass wants to reach people ages 18 and older. This is information based on your Facebook profile and where you've connected to the internet.

We can have a long discussion about the privacy implications of companies uploading their customer lists to Facebook, but I will leave that for another time. But, think about what Facebook is actually doing here.

While it's far from perfect, this is a very transparent way to disclose ad targeting. Not only are they telling me why I was targeted and what parameters it was based on, they are also telling me where they got the data from.

Again, it's not perfect. For instance, if I check the same for another ad, they tell me this:

One reason you're seeing this ad is that [the brand] wants to reach people who may be similar to their customers.

This is what Facebook calls 'lookalike audiences', where Facebook will try to match the characteristics of the brand with the interests of people on Facebook. But they don't tell me what the characteristics are. So a lot of things could be improved here.

But despite the shortcomings, you have to agree that there is a lot of ad transparency at play here, far more than the 'black box' ad experience of the past.

So, this is now becoming the new normal. Being able to see why I was targeted and where that data came from is becoming a standard that everyone must provide.

This leads us to the third element.

What interests have been recorded?

The final element of ad transparency is to be able to see what kind of profiling data companies have about you.

In Europe this is now a legal requirement as part of GDPR (and soon also ePrivacy), but the way both Facebook and Google have handled this is to create 'Ad preferences' pages where you can see what kind of topics they think you are interested in and also manage them.

For instance, with Google you can go to Google Ad Settings, and here you can see a list of all the ad parameters they have set for you as an individual.

Again, this is a pretty advanced form of ad transparency, and what's really fascinating about it (especially on Google) is how quickly and how often it updates. For instance, if you delete your ad profiling data (which you can), but still allow Google to target you personally, you can watch how it is identifying and trying to match you in almost real time.

It's not very good at it. Most of the targeting is extremely vague categories, and quite a lot of them are completely off. For instance, right now Google thinks I'm interested in 'consumer electronics'. I mean, sure... but that's not a very precise targeting.

There is also a lot of targeting where Google doesn't understand the intent. For instance, I often watch a YouTube show called FullyCharged about the future of renewable energy (including things like electric cars), and this has caused Google to think I'm in the market to buy a used car.

No Google. I have no interest in car ads, especially not the 'used' ones.

But the point is that you can then click on any of these and Google will tell you where they got that data from. In this case, they got it from Google itself, as a result of me either searching for or watching something on YouTube related to this.

And then I can choose to simply turn this topic off completely, or even turn off all topics and all personalization in general.

So, again, the tech companies are not perfect, but they actually do provide a very high level of transparency. And all of this is becoming the new normal. People are starting to expect this from everywhere.

And this, of course, is where we come to the real point of this story, because ... what about publishers? What do we do in the media industry?

Journalists and newspapers publish these extremely negative articles about Google and Facebook every day, calling upon them to provide more transparent advertising, but what do we do ourselves?

Well, let me show you two examples.

First, here is a page from one of the largest news sites in my country (but this is no different than any other newspaper).

As you can see, we have a page with a really big ad all around it, but do you notice that there is something missing?

Right... there is zero ad transparency.

Sure, I can kind of guess who paid for this ad since I can see the logo, but that's just because this ad has a logo as part of the creative look. But I can't really be sure. I can't see how this ad was targeted, I can't easily see what profiling data this news site has about me.

I can kind of request it by going to the privacy page (again, it's a legal requirement), and then reading through something like 11 pages of legalese until the very end where I am told to 'contact support'.

That's not ad transparency.

But let me show you another example. Over at Twitter, I noticed a lot of media people sharing an ad that appears to have come from a private citizen.

Here is the original tweet:

It is a very funny ad (you should read it - here is a high-res picture), and it does say 'paid advertisement' at the top. But the entire thing is written so that it sounds like this was placed by a private citizen named 'Nick Vitale'.

And when you look at the reactions on Twitter, it's obvious that most people think that this is indeed the case. That this ad is from Nick having a 'moment'.

What most people didn't realize (including me at first) was that this was just a lie. It's actually an ad from SAP.

But think about what is happening here. As editors and journalists we are slamming the tech companies for lack of ad transparency, when they actually already provide a lot of transparency.

At the same time, as a newspaper, we publish an ad where we are intentionally misleading the readers as to who placed and paid for it, where there is zero transparency, and where the public have no insight into any part of the process that made this happen.

You see the problem here?

You might look at this ad and think it's funny, and it was. But that's not the point. The point is that there is a growing disconnect between what you write about and what you do as a publisher.

And the worst part is that the media industry seem unwilling to recognize how much damage this is causing to the trust that people have in you as a publisher, and therefore your reputation also.

When I highlight this, what most people say is: "Oh, but Thomas, our newsroom and our business side are separate." ... and people who tell me this say it as if that makes it okay.

I'm sorry... but what the heck?

You can't do this. This is not about the separation of the newsroom and the business side. This is about who you are as a publisher.

How can people trust you if what you do and what you say aren't aligned? Or think about the discussions about 'fake news'. How can anyone trust you if you knowingly publish an ad that is designed to mislead people?

You knowingly facilitated a fake ad.

And this is not just about ad transparency. We see the same problem with several other things. We see it with privacy, editorials, and even things like everyday journalistic focus.

One second we see a journalist write an extremely critical article about something, and then two seconds later, the newspaper does exactly the same thing.

And when you look at this from the outside, like I do as a media analyst, it's like watching a train wreck happen over and over again. As a newspaper you become completely untrustworthy.

But more to the point, by doing things this way, and then excusing yourself by saying that 'you are separate from the newsroom', you are not making things better. All you are doing is telling your readers that you have so little control over your own company that internal departments are operating completely against each other, and that any principle of higher standards that you might write about doesn't actually apply to yourself.

It's just insane. Of course this also applies to you.

So, here is my media advice to you as a publisher.

In 2019, you need to turn this around. You need to do the same things as you say. In fact, you need to become the leader.

If you are attacking Facebook and Google for lack of ad transparency, then you as a publisher must show your readers that you can do this better than Google can.

But more to the point... and this might sound shocking to many ... you need to get rid of the terrible idea of "our newsroom is separate from our business team".

Stop saying that!! ... Stop thinking that!

It doesn't mean what you think it means.

What you need to do instead is this: As a publisher, your journalism is what defines you as a publication. In other words, it's your journalistic focus, your journalistic strategy, and your journalistic standards that define everything else in your company.

If you write that we need ad transparency, then your business side must provide that. In other words, your business side is not separate from your journalism. It follows it.

It's your editorial focus that defines your business conduct. Like this.

Notice the direction of the arrow. I'm not saying that the newsroom and the business side should be mixed. I am saying that what you do in the newsroom must reflect on what you do everywhere else.

Your business side is not separate from your newsroom. It's a reflection of it (and not the other way around).

So, in 2019, please change this culture and this mindset. As I illustrated in this article, Google and Facebook might not be perfect, but in terms of ad transparency, and even things like privacy controls, they are years ahead of anything we do in the media.

In fact, most traditional publishers haven't even started making any changes. Ads like the ones above are still published as if nothing had ever changed.

This is no longer acceptable. The public has been trained to think about this differently, partly because of our reporting. They now expect ad transparency by default. They expect to be able to see who placed and who paid for an ad (and not just see the ad itself). They expect to be able to look up what the targeting parameters were and where that data came from. And they expect to have easy to use controls where they can decide what is acceptable or not.

As publishers, you are providing none of that ... and the longer you wait, the more it will hurt your reputation and trustworthiness. And it's the same for privacy, editorials, and everything else you do.

So... please... change this. As a media analyst, I beg you. The damage this is causing to our industry and to you is immense.

 
 
 

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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé

 

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