Targeted ads offer little extra value for online publishers, study suggests

How much value do online publishers derive from behaviorally targeted advertising that uses privacy-hostile tracking technologies to determine which advert to show a website user?

A new piece of research suggests publishers make just 4% more vs if they were to serve a non-targeted ad.

It’s a finding that sheds suggestive light on why so many newsroom budgets are shrinking and journalists finding themselves out of work — even as adtech giants continue stuffing their coffers with massive profits.

Visit the average news website lousy with third party cookies (yes, we know, it’s true of TC too) and you’d be forgiven for thinking the publisher is also getting fat profits from the data creamed off their users as they plug into programmatic ad systems that trade info on Internet users’ browsing habits to determine the ad which gets displayed.

Yet while the online ad market is massive and growing — $88BN in revenues in the US in 2017, per IAB data, a 21% year-on-year increase — publishers are not the entities getting filthy rich off of their own content.

On the contrary, research in recent years has suggested that a large proportion of publishers are being squeezed by digital display advertising economics, with some 40% reporting either stagnant or shrinking ad revenue, per a 2015 Econsultancy study. (Hence, we can posit, the rise in publishers branching into subscriptions — TC’s own offering can be found here: Extra Crunch).

The lion’s share of value being created by digital advertising ends up in the coffers of adtech giants, Google and Facebook . Aka the adtech duopoly. In the US, the pair account for around 60% of digital ad market spending, per eMarketer — or circa $76.57BN.

Their annual revenues have mirrored overall growth in digital ad spend — rising from $74.9BN to $136.8BN, between 2015 and 2018, in the case of Google’s parent Alphabet; and $17.9BN to $55.8BN for Facebook. (While US online ad spend stepped up from $59.6BN to $88BN between 2015 and 2017.)

eMarketer projects 2019 will mark the first decline in the duopoly’s collective share. But not because publishers’ fortunes are suddenly set for a bonanza turnaround. Rather another tech giant — Amazon — has been growing its share of the digital ad market, and is expected to make what eMarketer dubs the start of “a small dent in the duopoly”.

Behavioral advertising — aka targeted ads — has come to dominate the online ad market, fuelled by platform dynamics encouraging a proliferation of tracking technologies and techniques in the unregulated background. And by, it seems, greater effectiveness from the perspective of online advertisers, as the paper notes. (“Despite measurement and attribution challenges… many studies seem to concur that targeted advertising is beneficial and effective for advertising firms.”

This has had the effect of squeezing out non-targeted display ads, such as those that rely on contextual factors to select the ad — e.g. the content being viewed, device type or location.

The latter are now the exception; a fall-back such as for when cookies have been blocked. (Albeit, one that veteran pro-privacy search engine, DuckDuckGo, has nonetheless turned into a profitable contextual ad business).

One 2017 study by IHS Markit, suggested that 86% of programmatic advertising in Europe was using behavioural data. While even a quarter (24%) of non-programmatic advertising was found to be using behavioural data, per its model. 

“In 2016, 90% of the digital display advertising market growth came from formats and processes that use behavioural data,” it observed, projecting growth of 106% for behaviourally targeted advertising between 2016 and 2020, and a decline of 63.6% for forms of digital advertising that don’t use such data.

The economic incentives to push behavioral advertising vs non-targeted ads look clear for dominant platforms that rely on amassing scale — across advertisers, other people’s eyeballs, content and behavioral data — to extract value from the Internet’s dispersed and diverse audience.

But the incentives for content producers to subject themselves — and their engaged communities of users — to these privacy-hostile economies of scale look a whole lot more fuzzy.

Concern about potential imbalances in the online ad market is also leading policymakers and regulators on both sides of the Atlantic to question the opacity of the market — and call for greater transparency.

A price on people tracking’s head

The new research, which will be presented at the Workshop on the Economics of Information Security conference in Boston next week, aims to contribute a new piece to this digital ad revenue puzzle by trying to quantify the value to a single publisher of choosing ads that are behaviorally targeted vs those that aren’t.

We’ve flagged the research before — when the findings were cited by one of the academics involved in the study at an FTC hearing — but the full paper has now been published.

It’s called Online Tracking and Publishers’ Revenues: An Empirical Analysis, and is co-authored by three academics: Veronica Marotta, an assistant professor in information and decision sciences at the Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota; Vibhanshu Abhishek, associate professor of information systems at the Paul Merage School of Business, University California Irvine; and Alessandro Acquisti, professor of IT and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

 

While the study only provides a snapshot of ad market economics, as experienced by a single publisher, the glimpse it presents is distinctly different from the picture the adtech lobby has sought to paint, as it has ploughed money into arguing against privacy legislation — on the claimed grounds that ‘killing behavioural advertising would kill free online content’. 

Saying no more creepy ads might only marginally reduce publishers’ revenue doesn’t have quite the same doom-laden ring, clearly.

“In a nutshell, this study provides an initial data point on a portion of the advertising ecosystem over which claims had been made but little empirical verification was completed. The results highlight the need for more transparency over how the value generated by flows of data gets allocated to different stakeholders,” says Acquisti, summing up how the study should be read against the ad market as a whole.