Opinion: Mobile game marketing: A new frontline against ad fraud

Esports and gaming have taken the Asia Pacific region by storm in recent years, and Vietnam is no exception to this. More than 45 million people in the country, from all walks of life, participate in these in some shape or form. Fuelled by a surge of popularity particularly in the casual and strategy genre, the profile of those who game is far removed from the stereotypical image of a predominantly young male demographic. In fact, games are now almost equally prevalent among both male and female audiences – standing at 51.6% and 48.4% respectively.  

The global pandemic has also further catalysed the trend, with lockdowns being implemented and strict social distancing measures upending many of our daily activities. As a result of this, gaming – being a safe and cost-effective means of entertainment – has seen a massive uptick in keeping consumers entertained and connected as the world increasingly pivots to the digital dimension.

Untapped but no utopia

The sheer reach of the gaming market has naturally piqued the interests of marketers. Savvy brands have also taken this insight one step further, tapping on to the vastly diverse audience network of the increasingly popular mobile platform.

However, to ensure the success of digital campaigns, it is of paramount importance that brands ensure their ad spend is being used to reach their intended human audience. A stark reality that faces marketers now is the prevalent issue of ad fraud. Ranked as amongst the top three challenges faced by Vietnamese advertisers by Mobile Marketing Association Vietnam and Decision Lab, ad fraud most commonly takes the form of bots, or domain spoofing, to siphon off money from advertising transactions, or to pretend to be humans browsing the internet or falsely representing low-quality inventory as high quality.

Fraud also occurs more easily in the mobile environment because many mobile buys are being bought on a performance basis. Performance metrics like cost per click (CPC), cost per thousand (CPMs), and cost-per-install are more easily manipulated. This has made Vietnam’s highly mobile-focused environment and mobile ad spend a prime target, further exacerbated by several factors such as pressure to drive growth in an increasingly competitive region, lack of dedicated resources available for user acquisition, and predominance of local ad networks.

Guarding your interests

To guard and identify ad fraud, there are some general metrics that brands can look toward when assessing the levels of fraud from their digital campaigns - Invalid traffic (IVT) and Viewability.

  • IVT is the artificial inflation of impressions and clicks on a publisher’s website, which, in turn, causes an impact on publisher revenue. Invalid traffic includes non-human traffic as well as unintended clicks. Invalid traffic can be generated deliberately with valueless clicks and impressions. Marketers can also protect themselves with an increased awareness of how and where their inventory is purchased. Premium inventory, such as in-app within mobile games in particular, display significantly lower levels of IVT compared to other verticals.  
  • Viewability and video completion rate (VCR) refer to the measure of whether an ad had a chance to be seen by a user. It helps marketers provide metrics on the number of times their ads actually appear in front of users. This, when combined with VCR - the rate at which your digital video impressions play to 100% - provide an understanding of the efficiency and effectiveness of your video campaign. Viewability ensures your ad is actually being seen, while high VCRs and viewability demonstrate that consumers spent time with your message.

A mobile safe haven

With all these measurements and threats, tackling ad fraud may seem like a gargantuan task. A possible panacea, however, can be found in choosing platforms that offer greater levels of brand safety - mobile gaming applications.  Vietnam had 85.5% of those surveyed in an AdColony study preferring to play games on their mobile devices, greatly outpacing traditional platforms such as PCs, tablets, and gaming consoles.

Mobile games being vetted by app stores for a preliminary check of their legitimacy and being an environment with little to no user-generated content (UGC), provide a much more controlled environment for brands to appear in. This ensures brand safety, or to put simply, online trust by users.

Indeed, screening mobile gaming inventory plays a key role in ensuring not just brand safety, but works to prevent ad fraud as well. Having home-grown mobile gaming brands such as Amanotes in Vietnam can also lend increased credibility to brands looking to invest in mobile gaming applications. It can also provide a set of standards in which the industry can adhere to, uplifting the overall brand safety of the mobile gaming environment.

Other tricks of the trade

While engaging third-party vendors is perhaps the most effective way for brands to mitigate fraud, few make use of them in Asia Pacific, according to the IAB Southeast Asia and India’s regional brand safety study in 2019. Instead, the most commonly reported tools used to prevent fraud were whitelisting and blacklisting, which are less sophisticated.

More recently, there have been tools that now leverage machine-learning capabilities to further filter out invalid traffic and protect ad spend investments. These are specifically targeted to tackle sophisticated invalid traffic (SIVT), which is more difficult to detect as this type of fraud actively tries to avoid simple patterns that raise a red flag. Masking their behaviours as legitimate, such frauds require a combination of advanced analytics, multi-point corroboration, and human intervention to detect.

The metrics on which brands pay media are also a factor, with CPM campaigns being the lowest hurdle for an IVT generator to overcome. By optimising to metrics such as cost per acquisition, marketers can make the challenge more significant for bots and other IVT.

Another of the digital advertising industry’s main responses to ad fraud has been the development of ads.txt, a text file publishers place on their sites that lists companies authorised to sell their inventory. Around half of the top 1000 websites have adopted the strategy in a bid to combat fraud in programmatic display advertising.

Defining the next chapter

Today’s businesses heavily rely on data to make decisions, and ad fraud is a major hurdle that the industry needs to cross. It pollutes the very information that allows the informed use of resources, spending, and overall financials of campaigns. Not every mobile ad network and the platform has direct in-game supply though, and brand advertisers need to choose the right partners to take advantage of the opportunity.

Today’s modern marketers need to be aware of the various protection solutions available, and serve as guardians against the rising threat ad fraud, along with the always-evolving techniques that they employ. While change will not be easy, I believe it is wholly necessary in order to maintain a competitive advantage in the digital era.

The writer is Priyanka Bajaj, senior director of sales, Southeast Asia and North Asia, AdColony.