Click farms and buying traffic trickle into podcasts

In digital, where there is money, there is often fraud.

Last week, Maximum Media, the parent company of, came under fire in Ireland for allegedly using click farms in 2017 to juice the number of listens on an episode of the publisher’s since-discontinued business podcast, The Capital B, sponsored by Allied Irish Banks. The bank’s agency, Core, part of Starcom, halted running campaigns with Maximum Media in Ireland.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau is discussing the case and releasing a statement this week. Maximum Media said an internal investigation found this was an isolated incident unauthorized by the company. Last year, click farms in audio were used to game the ranking of podcasts in Apple’s iTunes charts through accounts leaving reviews. In the case of Maximum Media, it’s been alleged that listens to the podcast episode on SoundCloud leapt from 3,000 to 21,000 overnight.

On podcasts, advertisers can run spot ads, host-read ads, sponsorship or branded podcasts. Branded podcasts can reach between 10,000 and 100,000 listens per month, said Charlie Yeates, commercial trading partner at MediaCom. This type of advertising could cost the brand between £50,000 ($65,000) and £250,000 ($323,000), he added.

“Live reads are ambiguous, sporadic and ad hoc,” said Yeates. “To get a guaranteed set amount of listens, it might take 50 mentions. All advertisers care about is reaching the audience. It’s not about mass reach, it’s about the right reach.”

Setting up fraudulent farms, fake accounts and cross-posting doesn’t require a lot of sophisticated tech. Calculating the financial impact is thorny. In Ireland, the 2018 IAB and PricewaterhouseCoopers online ad spend study calculated €2 million ($2.2 million) was spent on digital audio ads (which include podcasts). In the U.K., agency sources have estimated podcast advertising in the region of $12.73 million (£10 million). Compare that with the U.S., which totaled $479 million (£376.27 million) in 2018, according to research by the IAB and PwC.

Despite the growth in podcasts as a channel, subpar measurement and reporting capabilities hold back larger brands from committing more of their ad budget to less tried and tested audio channels. Keeping the environment brand-safe and fraud-free will determine whether or not podcasting will live up to its promise.

“It doesn’t feel like the commercial side of podcasting is maturing at the same rate as the audience engagement,” said Nick Wright, managing director of Jump, Havas Media. “It’s really hard to understand, from the making-of-a-podcast point of view. The commercialization can be quite confusing.”

Key podcasting platforms like Spotify, Acast and Dax operate their own networks adding another level of comfort for advertisers.

“Monitoring at the publisher level and having visibility over the previous month’s performance means there’s less room for error,” said Lawrence Dodds, client director at Universal McCann. “If a publisher triples their size overnight, that granular detail can show it’s an isolated problem.”

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