Purging (and Blocking) Bot Traffic From Email Reporting Metrics

How many “fake” email metrics are out there — spurious traffic measured in opens, clickthroughs, and other engagement metrics? How many of these email reporting metrics may be built into service-level guarantees offered by some email service providers (ESPs)? And what should we do about it?

How many “fake” email metrics are out there spurious traffic measured in opens, clickthroughs, and other engagement metrics? How many of these email reporting metrics may be built into service-level guarantees offered by some email service providers (ESPs)? And what should we do about it?

For those of who pay attention to such metrics (thank you for reading this far), perhaps we need to do more data investigation, working closely with our ESPs to make sure there’s nothing “fake” in our marketing performance reporting.

This was essentially the point of Stirista Global CEO Ajay Gupta in a blog post he shared after a competitor’s operations were reportedly shut down by its new parent company this summer. I’m using this post to share some of his observations  which may be helpful as we look to our email campaigns, and read the engagement data in order to best ascertain accuracy. [Disclaimer: Stirista is a continuing client. My interest in amplifying this content is intended to serve email marketers, at large.]

A Cautionary Tale: Take 5 Media Group Shutdown

Gupta gave permission to share his Aug. 9 post:

Ajay Gupta
Ajay Gupta

Stirista Global CEO Ajay Gupta has something to say about email reporting fraud.

“Tongues have been wagging in the marketing world ever since the New York Times’ shocking exposé in early 2018 about how easy it is to buy social followers. And, how most of the followers you buy turn out to be ‘bots’ or fake accounts, and not real people.

“I was not surprised, because I work in digital media and knew about this practice. So, I cried, screamed, and wrote about an even bigger epidemic in the world of email. My articles were received with polite applause and not much more in terms of action.

“But then last week happened. One of our competitors, Take 5 Media Group, shut down operations with a ‘ceased operations’ message on its website. While details are still murky, one of our partners shared an email from them that mentioned the parent company had completely shut down the business after discovering inconsistencies in how open and clickthrough rates were inaccurately reported to its clients.

“The parent company did the right thing, in after discovering these inconsistencies, took immediate action to first, take responsibility, and subsequently, offer its clients reimbursement for payment of services already rendered. Kudos to them for standing up for the right thing, but there are still at least a half dozen companies masquerading as legitimate entities that continue the practice.

“This incident is but a sobering reminder that bots remain a big problem in email marketing today. Sadly, when you order up a prospecting campaign from an email service provider, chances are that the large part of the campaign is being sent to fake bot accounts. And nobody seems to care.

“We have, as an industry, created a fake floor of 10% open on acquisition emails. When marketing managers of Fortune 1000 companies ask Stirista to guarantee 10% open just because some guy from Florida said so, we know we have a problem.

“Now, it should be clear to any marketer worth his or her salt, that if the bulk of the clicks come through bots, that conversion rates will be dismal. So, I can only assume that the marketers ordering up these campaigns aren’t keeping their eyes on conversions. They must judge them on clicks and opens. Or, maybe they don’t care. We are here today because many large data companies that outsource email campaigns have subsidized fraud.

“Let Take 5 serve [as] a cautionary tale, but realize that this is not an isolated incident. The pressure to deliver fake open, fake clicks, and fake form fills transcend one company and one incident. Collectively, this industry has turned a blind eye to fraud, just because ‘so and so’ is a nice guy and a vegetarian who loves animals.

“These fraudulent providers often work quietly, behind the scenes, for a reputable agency or data provider. Many times, marketers are shielded from the dirty dealings underneath the hood. But all parties involved — the providers, their partners, and the marketers themselves — should be ashamed of themselves. And, the FCC should be on their case. Until then, we must all be responsible for fighting back against bot fraud.

“I urge all marketers to shun this practice. It’s wasting your company’s money. And it’s given honest, transparent providers like me a bad name. Open rates are a terrible metric to track as in you can’t track it that well.

“So, if you hear a guarantee that sounds too good to be true, very likely it is. Walk, make that RUN, the other way, FAST.”

Back to Chet. I remember the first time I saw a data provider advertise a way to “buy” 5,000 followers on this-or-that social platform for some CPM, some 10 to 12 years ago and I thought then, “here we go again with the shysters living on and off the fringes of direct marketing.” In each and everywhere data is in play, and the compensation from it, we must guard ourselves from the “fake” and the “fraud.” Better to measure conversions, sales, and metrics that are real.

Active Investing During a Market Correction | Is There a Marketing Data ‘Correction’ Under Way?

During most market corrections — when the Dow drops by 10 percent or more — equity investors are reminded to take a long-term view, and to sit tight and ride it out. Most corrections don’t result in bear markets, after all; particularly when market fundamentals are strong.

market correction
Creative Commons license. | Credit: Pixabay by geralt

During most market corrections — when the Dow drops by 10 percent or more — equity investors are reminded to take a long-term view, and to sit tight and ride it out. Most corrections don’t result in bear markets, after all; particularly when market fundamentals are strong.

This is not a financial advice post, however.

We are undergoing a market correction of another sort, perhaps more aptly described as a marketplace correction. Except there are no pullbacks or declines here — it’s instead about protecting and projecting long-term growth. This correction has been under way at least since 2017 (and arguably before that), when Procter & Gamble’s Marc Pritchard made his urgent address at IAB’s Annual Leadership Meeting — and IAB CEO Randall Rothenberg reminded us to get out of the “fake anything” business. This correction continues in 2018.

In this market, we are the investors — holding active positions in the long-term health and well-being of the data-driven marketing marketplace. And the last thing we should do is “sit tight and ride it out.”

We all have an active role to play in “steering in a new direction,” for example, in making sure human activity, not bots, are the brand engagement and performance metrics we are measuring – and compensating.

The bots are usually associated with programmatic media buying, which dominates the buying and selling of digital display — where the majority of media buys are very much legitimate, but not wholly so. The “walled gardens” — largely, the social media platforms, among others — too have had to answer to policymakers as to why and how their targeting algorithms have been being duped by ill-minded foreign agents. How do we bring transparency to the social advertising we see — at least in political ads, where labeling and disclosures rules are now in force across other media categories?

But one of my clients — Stirista CEO Ajay Gupta — reminds us that it isn’t just online ads where fraud may be being perpetrated: Even email campaigns can be undermined by fake accounts, running up open and click-through rates which falsify an accurate reading of results.

We don’t need a European-style “data protection” law that would strip the digital marketplace of wholly beneficial intelligence — and hurt business, innovation, competition, journalism and diversity of content in the process. We also don’t need to denigrate the proven value of third-party data in if and how we append our first-party data, gain deeper understanding of our customers and build better models in the process. Both of these “throw out the baby” outcomes would be recipes for failure.

But we do need to tend to our long-term growth — keeping focus on end-users (consumers) and the brands and publishers who seek to employ intelligent and responsible ad tech, marketing tech and relevant data to give customers more precisely what they want.

We need to be active investors — more so because we know precisely that market fundamentals remain strong. Fraud is fraud. And fake is fraud. But advertising itself is not fraud, and neither is relevant content. We — the purveyors of advertising, marketing and relevant content — are victims of fraud, too. And we have the most to lose if we don’t audit our data sources, document and validate actual customer and prospect permissions and preferences, decoy our data and networks, test for bot fraud, and isolate and eradicate bad players.

There are great minds who have come together to tackle these issues — through our trade associations, self-regulatory programs and working group initiatives. As data-driven marketers, we may no longer choose to be passive by-standers — and simply ride it out. Be involved — and stay involved is the best course of action. We are active investors because we all have a stake in growth.

Lest we forget just how successful we can be, investors usually get burned when they pull completely out of the market. So it is with data.

A Listing of U.S. Trade Associations — and there certainly are others:

A Listing of Relevant Self-Regulation Programs for Digital & Data-Driven Advertising:

Disclosure: I have an individual membership with Data & Marketing Association, and a client relationship with Digital Advertising Alliance, which is founded by the six trade associations listed here, with the advice of the Council of Better Business Bureaus.

5 Things ’60 Minutes’ (Intentionally) Didn’t Tell Americans About Data Brokers

Kids, “60 Minutes” is no longer U.S. broadcast journalism at its former best—it’s pseudo-infotainment. Frankly, correspondent Steve Kroft and company had their own point of view that they wanted to report to whip up hysteria, and it wasn’t part of any of the data-driven advertising ecosystem that anyone of us practitioners recognize. Here’s what I know—that I want every consumer to know—and what CBS and “60 Minutes” should have told its viewers:

Kids, “60 Minutes” is no longer U.S. broadcast journalism at its former best—it’s pseudo-infotainment.

The Direct Marketing Association, my editor at Target Marketing, our friends at Direct Marketing News and The Magill Report were spot on with their responses.

Frankly, correspondent Steve Kroft and company had their own point of view that they wanted to report to whip up hysteria, and it wasn’t part of any of the data-driven advertising ecosystem that anyone of us practitioners recognize. Bryan Kennedy of Epsilon did yeoman’s work: Self-regulation exists because all marketers know that data is the currency of our livelihood, and consumer trust underpins us all.

Here’s what I know—that I want every consumer to know—and what CBS and “60 Minutes” should have told its viewers:

1. You Can Opt Out
For decades, Americans have had numerous free ways to “opt-out” of the data-sharing-for-marketing-use marketplace—and millions upon millions of Americans have taken advantage of these free industry-offered programs:

  • DMAChoice, offered by DMA, allows industry-wide opt-out of prospect direct mail, email, do-not-call (for selected states) and unaddressed mail delivery.
  • Nearly all consumer brands also offer their own preference centers and in-house suppression lists on their Web sites and Privacy Policies—both for do-not-send and for do-not-share, bridging multiple channels. Many business brands also do the same.
  • More recently, the Digital Advertising Alliance and its Consumer Choice Page provides an industry-wide opt-out mechanism for targeted display ads online that are served (in a de-identified basis, by the way) based on browsing behavior. Consumers can harden their choices against cookie removal once each opt-out choice is made.
  • A similar opt-out mechanism for mobile interest-based advertising from DAA is now in the works.

2. Marketing Data Is Used for Marketing Only
Every code of conduct and every ethics guideline in our business states this clearly. Furthermore, firewalls exist between marketing data (our business’s data sources) and individual referential data (information used for private investigation, employment, credit, insurance eligibility). If “60 Minutes”—or a consumer, or anyone else for that matter—has evidence that a marketer or service provider is sharing, renting or selling marketing data for non-marketing uses, the DMA’s Committee on Ethical Business Practice would want to be first to know—so as to investigate and bring any organization into compliance. Hypotheticals and inferences are not reality, despite the innuendoes used by Kroft.

3. Sensitive Data Are Already Regulated
Areas of sensitivity that most consumers care about—personally identifiable data related to their children, financial data, health information, credit data and a few other categories—are already regulated under federal law. Marketers must adhere to these laws and regulations.

4. Fraud Is Not Marketing
Another sensitive area—where and when marketing data is breached with a likelihood for fraud—you’ll find that most marketing organizations indeed want one national standard (not 50 plus one) for how consumers are notified and what protections they are afforded. Fraud prevention—as well as data governance and data stewardship—is a heightened priority for all businesses and organizations that rely on consumer information.

5. Data Benefits Customers
Data used for marketing purposes should be a government concern: not on how to stop it—but how to promote it, both domestically and globally, to benefit consumers and the economy. On the whole, consumers demand relevance. They demand recognition. They crave personalization. And every day—millions of times a day—they vote with their wallets: They shop, they donate, they subscribe, they raise their hands, all based on their participation in commerce. Marketing data also enables competition and the innovation and variety of choices consumers enjoy. As DMA has ably documented, marketing data exchange generates sales, jobs and tax revenue—and, might I add, satisfied consumers. Yes, we need consumer protection from fraud, bad players and unfair and deceptive practices—but “our data-driven economy” is a hugely wonderful default.

Which begs the question: Where is the harm, “60 Minutes”?

Just When You Thought You Were Safe…

Ever hear of malvertisements? Reshipper fraud?

I didn’t either, until these two fraudulent practices were discussed during the opening session of the Authentication and Online Trust Alliance Summit 2008, which took place June 4 to 5 in Seattle.

Ever hear of malvertisements? Reshipper fraud?

I didn’t either, until these two fraudulent practices were discussed during the opening session of the Authentication and Online Trust Alliance Summit 2008, which took place June 4 to 5 in Seattle.

In his opening keynote. Craig Spiezle, chairman AOTA and director, Internet security & privacy, Microsoft Corp., explained that while more and more e-mail is authenticated today and online ad revenue and online holiday spending are increasing, “trust continues to be an issue,” he said.

For example, he said malvertisements continues to be a goring trend. Basically, malvertisements are a new breed of Flash ads appearing on Web sites that can infect a PC with viruses or spyware when the user simply views the page they’re loaded into. No clicking required.

“With malvertisements, mail servers or Web servers are being compromised, where consumers see a legitimate ad for something like an auto manufacturer, they click on that ad, and are actually now taken to a deceptive site, and malware is out on the machine,” said Spiezel. “It is unknown to the consumer, site owner and the brand owner of that advertisement…That is a real problem that we are seeing more and more of.”

Reshipping, or postal forwarding, scams was discussed in a session by Tom Donlea, executive director of the Merchant Risk Council, a trade association for supporting merchants in preventing online fraud and promoting secure e-commerce in global online payments.

Donlea explained that these scams involve fraudsters asking individuals through the Internet to repackage stolen goods — frequently consumer electronics — and forward them, often outside the United States. Scammers ask victims to shell out their own shipping charges, and pay reimbursement and compensation with a fake check.

In addition to seeing their own paychecks bounce, those who fall for reshipping scams may be liable for shipping charges and even the cost of goods purchased online with stolen credit cards.

Donlea said the scams usually originate from Vietnam, Nigeria, or Eastern Europe, and they usually target romance sites/chat rooms.

“Interestingly enough, Christian single sites are on patrol for mules as victims,” he said.
In addition, he said that sometimes the scams are presented as at-home job advertisements.

Donlea said the MRC is working with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service to talk to individuals who are doing the re-shipping and explaining that their activity is illegal.

“They have claimed several thousand packages, and we are working with the merchant community to return those goods and to establish coordination with the public about how to avoid these scams,” Donlea said.

To create online trust, these issues must be dealt with, and the industry is doing everything it can to make sure these practcies are curbed.