Plugging Data Leakage

It's time for all stakeholders to step back and take a big-picture view of what the flood of data means to digital advertising.
Customer Experience

Data leakage is a large and largely underestimated threat to the digital advertising industry and one that all stakeholders-including agencies, publishers, ad technology providers, and brands-must work together to mitigate. It is a threat that has been mostly and collectively self-created by all stakeholders as more pixels and tags have been added over time.

Data leakage refers to the transfer of data from one party to another within the realm of digital marketing or advertising. Typically, this occurs through the tracking tags or pixels that marketers use to track the performance of their ads on a publisher's site. That sounds simple enough, and tracking tags are an integral part of measuring digital marketing. The intentions for adding individual tags (such as fighting fraud or capping how many times an individual users sees the same ad) are often very good.

However, data leakage becomes a problem when those tags and pixels are used to gather other data about the publishers' audience or when an ad network, data broker, or other intermediary uses such pixels without a publisher knowing about it. And as their number and complexity proliferated, many publishers have lost visibility about which vendors and "middlemen" have access to their audience data.

Each vendor tries to solve one little problem, and takes a little piece of revenue in doing so. Once you put all those little cuts together, they add to a pretty big chunk. But the biggest loss occurs when these tags become holes through which consumer data leaks.

It's time for all stakeholders to step back and take a big-picture view of what the flood of data means to digital advertising, recognize that data leakage is a significant issue and take actions to prevent it, or at least greatly mitigate its impact. There are a number of important steps publishers can, and should, take:

Recognize that audience data is not just for selling ads. Because data has become so valuable to the publishing business (as well as other industries), it can seem like data collection has become the main objective. In our view, data is collected primarily to enrich the value proposition we offer our users and to enhance their experience.

Yes, data makes advertising more precise and enables us to share targeted offers and messaging. But that precision must serve the higher-order objective of engaging consumers so they see value. Publishers, like KBB, that want to monetize their data should consider how targeting content and increasing trust in their brands can lead to more engaged audiences and more revenue. And we should see the risk if we use data only to relentlessly cross-sell and up-sell. Because attribution tags may dilute the value of data, publishers should own their data and hold themselves responsible for how it's used.

Stipulate and validate how data can be used. Too often middlemen do not clarify how data is used. Are they creating lookalike sites or sharing with agency trading desks and competitors? It's critical that contracts stipulate who can do what with audience data. At a minimum, publishers should have the means to validate how data is being used and if policies are breached.

Bring network inventory up to the quality of premium in terms of viewability. Buying from premium publishers means ads are less at risk for spam and bot traffic, so the focus should be on in-view ad positions. For network buys, viewability is more of a necessity. Agencies need to make some effort to recognize the fundamental differences among different types of properties. To avoid suspect inventory, they must finally recognize the value of and pay a premium for viewable traffic.

Engage senior leaders within your organization. When it comes to data leakage, there is a clear lack of awareness at the highest decision-making levels. Senior leaders need to understand that it is happening, why it matters, and the options for managing and protecting audience data. More practically, a discussion is needed to determine the cases where adding tags and sharing data make sense-perhaps for specific strategic partnerships with agencies and advertisers, for both direct and programmatic channels.

To a large extent, quality content and a quality customer experience is what allows a publisher to be considered premium. And the quality of the audience, along with the quality of data about that audience, enables premium publishers to command higher rates. If that quality is diluted through data leakage, the premium pricing capability will likely be compromised.