Sponsoring a major sports team is seen as the pinnacle for many brands. Getting your name on the shirt, or on advertising hoardings in the stadium guarantees millions, if not billions, of eyes on your brand.
But in the digital age, this visibility presents a challenge, and one that has been laid bare with fans of Manchester United in England. One of the world’s most widely supported soccer teams, Man Utd are undoubtedly successful on the field and in the boardroom too.
Since 2003, the club has been run by the Glazer family, who also own the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Their ownership has long been the subject of ire from the fans, with regular protests during the tenure.
However, a recent attempt by Manchester United to join a breakaway soccer league in mainland Europe was met with a huge backlash. To be fair, all the teams that attempted to establish the European Super League have seen protests and anger from the supporters.
Man United fans however have taken this as a sign to try to kick the Glazer family where it hurts, right in the wallet.
Organized sponsor clicks
Fans have realized that scaring sponsors away from the club is a surefire way to get their voices heard. So, an orchestrated campaign to click on the paid ads of sponsors has seen a doubling in ad spend and over £1.2 million lost to this form of PPC fraud in just over two weeks.
Set up by Man Utd fans, the Twitter account BoycottGlazers has been running instructions about how to cause the most damage, under the hashtag #NotAPennyMore.
With links to Google search results and a list of over 50 companies associated with the soccer giants, it’s a disruptive campaign unlike anything seen before.
And, perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s already starting to have an effect. One potential sponsor pulled out of a deal worth around £200 million, and TeamViewer have decided to pull the plug on their partnership.
The campaign goes beyond just clicking on paid ads, with fans also encouraged to leave negative reviews on sites like TrustPilot.
Sports fans are notoriously passionate about their clubs, so protests about bad decisions are nothing new. And, we’ve seen brand boycotts before, most recently after Nike and Colin Kaepernick’s partnership and the ensuing #JustBurnIt (which actually resulted in one of the best quarters ever for Nike).
But this is perhaps the first time this kind of protest has targeted the finances of companies associated with a brand in the spotlight.
So, what does this mean for the future of sponsorships, especially with those brands who might be deemed controversial?
People power vs the algorithms
We’re faced with so many ads on a daily basis, many of us even click paid ads just to waste the budget of brand marketers. So it was only ever going to be a matter of time before tech savvy protesters realised that they could affect corporate partnerships in this way.
Basically, this campaign has already been effective, so it stands to reason that it will very likely happen again. In fact, this is nothing new, albeit on a smaller and more fragmented scale.
Zack Shipman from click fraud provider ClickCease says, “This kind of activity from genuine human users is exactly the kind of thing that gives digital marketers headaches. There are always brand haters who want to click your ads, and separating those from the genuine visitors is something that algorithms usually find hard to do.
“But there are ways you can track user behaviour to understand if people are clicking your ads with malicious intentions, or just to annoy you”.
Blocking click fraud often involves blacklists of known IP addresses, or tracking obvious bot activity, but Zack from ClickCease shares a few tips to spot non-genuine clicks from humans.
Watch your click frequency
People maliciously clicking ads might do so with regularity – perhaps a few times over the course of ten to 15 minutes. Genuine visitors will most likely, but not always, click an ad and leave it open in a browser tab to come back to later.
Yes, they might click multiple times over a number of days, but if you’re seeing multiple clicks in minutes then chances are you’re seeing a fraudulent click.
Another feature of this organised fraud campaign by the soccer fans is attempts to sabotage online inventory by adding items to their shopping carts. This has the effect of fooling the shop platform into thinking that an item is spoken for, and with enough people filling their carts, can lead to items falsely showing as out of stock.
This is also an approach used by bots to sabotage inventory, another aspect of click fraud which can be stopped by blocking fake traffic.
One of the main giveaways for fake traffic is usually the a hasty exit by the site visitor. Although both humans and bots will spend at least a few seconds on a site before clicking away, a genuine user would likely take at least a few moments to read the content and check some product details.
High bounce rates, or repeat visitors with relatively high bounce rates, are a clear sign of fake traffic.
Protecting PPC from fraud
Ad fraud and click fraud are increasingly in the public eye, and this latest incident highlights that it’s an issue that is only growing in scope and awareness.
Marketers running paid search or display ads on Google or Bing should definitely be looking into options to ensure their traffic stays fraud free.