Finding transparency in a big data world

This article is part of the Digiday Partner Program and is sponsored by DataXu.

In this era of big data, which can inform nearly everything about a consumer’s behavior and motivations for making a purchase, the buzz is all about transparency. In marketing terms, the word “transparency” is often tossed around to convey a broad set of promises. Though asking the right questions and demanding detailed answers can be daunting — particularly when vendors may toss around technical lingo and jargon — doing so is key to ensuring you’re getting the most bang for your buck.

“Transparency fosters accountability in digital media, and accountability feeds value, and value justifies price,” said Matt Barash, former vice president of audience monetization at Forbes.

For an industry that is built on trust and relationships (and a relatively closed system of limited media opportunities), the era of big data has brought both excitement and trepidation. Marketers are excited because they are having more and more opportunity to see exactly how their media dollars are being spent, and yet they also feel trepidation because sometimes that information is not (or may not be) living up to the original promises.

“For the first five or six years, there was some fear and misconception about what [transparency] meant for a business built on relationships,” said Curt Hecht, a former executive at VivaKi and current chief revenue officer at The Weather Company. But as marketers, agencies and vendors become more comfortable that more data can lead to a better understanding of how, where and why to spend media dollars, the trust is growing.

“Solving for transparency is an industry-wide question. There’s equal responsibility between the buy side and the sell side to establish accountability, and that accountability establishes trust,” Barash said.

Transparency can come in many different forms, and it’s important to identify the main areas where marketers and agencies can expect it. Transparency can be based on:

  • Price — i.e., knowing the cost and quantity of what’s being bought
  • Media  — which covers domain- and site-level reporting
  • Tactic — clear understanding about why a campaign is working
  • Campaign management — confirmation that setup and targeting requirements are being honored
  • Viewability — identifying which ads are actually being seen by consumers

An agency or brand looking for true transparency on its digital media placements needs to be clear with its partners about every aspect of the engagement, stating exactly what is expected and expecting the clarity from vendor and partner reporting — even if (or especially if) that requires more work. To get tactical transparency, for instance, clients should demand discreet sets of tags to track different placements. Those seeking media transparency should demand domain- and site-level reporting.

“That’s not something we often get, but that would be transparency,” said Mitchell Weinstein, senior vice president of ad operations for Universal McCann. He adds that the verification services the agency uses do allow him to see “where the issues are and what the issues are.”

Perhaps the biggest threat to transparency right now is at the management level, where bots and cookie-bombing are a legitimate threat to obtaining true clarity about how the reporting is coming back to marketers, agencies and vendors. “I still don’t know information about the quality of the market vs. the cheapness of the market,” Hecht said. “I don’t want to have to compete against bot-driven inventory that drives down our prices.”

“It’s a big industry problem,” Weinstein said. “That’s something we need to be aware of, and [we] are working toward solving that.”

There are techniques to solving the problem, but the main one boils down to this: Everyone involved needs to continue asking the tough questions and remain steadfast until they get detailed answers.

“Accountability brings a lot to the party, and making sure the partner you’re with can bring that accountability [is key],” Hecht said. “It’s early days, and we need to be smart, ask the right questions and know what marketing intends to do with their dollars. It’s important for marketers and agencies not to back off when something gets really technical.”
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