Blockchain technology is great at transforming entrenched, inefficient business models. It isn't every day that you see it disrupting a disruptor, though.
But that is already happening in some aspects of the advertising industry, particularly in quality assurance (QA).
QA is an oft-underserved function in online advertising, but it's an important one with many moving parts. One of them is creative QA.
With so many different advertising formats and requirements, creative ad agencies and the publishers that they serve are challenged to ensure that everyone gets what they're expecting. The publishers must get advertisements that fit their size requirements and don't interrupt their viewers' experience.
On the agency side, executives and their clients want to be sure that their advertisements display properly on a range of devices, which might include smartphones, several different web browsers and operating systems. They also want to see advertisements displayed in front of the right people, based on a range of criteria that they have agreed upon with the publisher.
A properly-managed advertising QA process helps to guarantee these things, and it begins long before an ad ever reaches a screen.
Advertisers and publishers alike have long checklists to fill when preparing an ad to run on a site. They include items like the format that the ad is coded in, whether there are controls to stop its audio, the required network bandwidth and text localization.
Could the blockchain help with this problem? Perhaps, but it isn't where the real opportunities in QA lie.
Today, many agencies handle creative QA manually, passing assets back and forth between publishers and clients for approval. There are opportunities to enhance this process with blockchain technology, although a lot of this QA is handled internally by teams at the agency, publisher and client, the case isn't as compelling. Given that the agencies, clients and publishers know each other, existing centralized automation systems may work just as well.
The Real Opportunity
Blockchain technology could come into its own with another task connected to advertising QA, though: ad verification. Not all online advertising deals happen bilaterally between a creative agency and a publisher. Often, publishers will sell advertising spots programmatically. Agencies and clients buy them via demand-side platforms that handle real-time bidding across multiple advertising exchanges.
These introduce far bigger quality assurance problems than an ad that is too large or won't play. Advertisers behind a complex, programmatically-managed series of intermediaries may not be who they say they are. They may use publishers as a conduit for malicious ads, designed to infect viewers' machines.
Forbes fell victim to such an attack, infecting countless visitors with "malvertising" alongside a 2016 "30 under 30" feature. It is one of many sites that has suffered from a lack of proper QA.
At the other end of the supply chain, unscrupulous publishers can impersonate legitimate online properties selling false ad impressions created by clickbots that only generate revenue for the fraudsters who operate them.
Programmatic advertising is highly distributed with many stakeholders, none of whom share data with each other. It is also a high-volume and high-velocity business. These make centralized auditing difficult but make it a ripe market for blockchain technology, which thrives in environments like these.
Companies are already moving on this opportunity with blockchain-based advertising verification systems. MetaX provides an Ethereum-based smart contract solution that verifies advertiser domain names and ad impressions using cryptography. It allows publishers to see who sold and resold their inventory, and who to.
Rebel AI is also using blockchain technology to authenticate ads. Advertisers can encrypt their ads, send them to publishers via existing programmatic markets and only decrypt them when they reach a verified destination.
Agency teams, publishers and advertisers may still flock to centralized systems when automating creative QA, but in the fast-moving world of real-time bidding and fulfilment, blockchain-based QA looks set to flourish. Companies like Rebel AI and MetaX aren't the only players to tackle this problem, and there are doubtless more coming.