App-ads.txt is an Anti-Fraud Tool, but for Publishers, it’s Really About Revenue

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It’s been more than a year since the IAB released the final version of app-ads.txt. So far, mobile publishers have yet to see the anti-fraud tool’s value in terms of understanding and driving revenue. Here’s what publishers need to know. 

Why adoption has been uneven and largely focused on fraud

The idea behind app-ads.txt was to reduce mobile and OTT advertising fraud in much the same way that ads.txt was created to attack fraud on the desktop. A recent report estimates that more than 180,000 mobile publishers have implemented app-ads.txt. That’s certainly impressive, but when you dig into the breakdown by the operating systems, the rollout looks uneven. According to the report, 73% of the top 1,000 iOS apps in terms of programmatic ad volume have app-ads.txt, compared to 53% of the top 1,000 Android apps. Why might this be the case? 

For one thing, the IAB hasn’t mandated the adoption of app-ads.txt. In other words, it’s still the Wild West out there when it comes to fraud. But even the publishers that have done the right thing by adopting app-ads.txt have gotten the wrong message about the tool because it’s been presented entirely as a compliance matter. As a result, many mobile publishers treat app-ads.txt as a perfunctory anti-fraud measure that they can “set and forget.”

By improving transparency, app-ads.txt empowers publishers to focus on revenue

Take a step back and think about the core function of app-ads.txt. Yes, it’s an anti-fraud tool, but to accomplish that goal, app-ads.txt must first give publishers a rule-based window into their buyers. Or, put another way, app-ads.txt enhances marketplace transparency by uncloaking buyers and their supply paths. The question should be: What can mobile publishers do with that information?

By and large, few mobile publishers have bothered to leverage the insights that come with app-ads.txt implementation. Some publishers have used app-ads.txt to allow only direct buyers and exclude resellers—a good way to focus on control. Meanwhile, other publishers have been more targeted, creating a mixed list of approved buyers and resellers. In theory, that second group might come off as balancing revenue with control, but who’s to say? 

Put simply, you don’t know what you don’t know. If publishers treat their app-ads.txt lists as static compliance measures, they aren’t running experiments that will allow them to make informed business decisions. By constantly testing direct buyers and resellers, publishers can leverage real insights into the marketplace and their counter-parties. In turn, those insights will help publishers better identify value in the supply path and maximize revenue. 

Mobile publishers need to create best practices around app-ads.txt

After taking the initial step of implementing app-ads.txt, here are some additional best practices for mobile publishers that want to use app-ads.txt to inform business decisions. 

Create written corporate policies

A surprising number of mobile app developers and publishers don’t have any app-ads.txt statements posted on their websites. Here are two reasons why publishers should act right away to remedy this omission. First, a written corporate policy sends a professional message to buyers. At the very least, telling buyers about your anti-fraud measures makes it clear that you take fraud seriously. Second, developing a written corporate policy is useful for creating internal alignment, which is a prerequisite for publishers looking to leverage app-ads.txt as a business insight tool.

Tie sellers.json back to app-ads.txt and monitor your partners

Publishers should always verify that the partner has included the publisher’s information correctly in the sellers.json before launch. For reference, sellers.json is a file on the demand partner’s domain that lists the publishers and allows both relationships to be defined. Publishers should have the capability to monitor their partners’ sellers.json, and the partners should have the capability to monitor the publisher’s app-ads.txt files.

Manage your file structure

An app-ads.txt file can easily turn into a mess over time as you add and subtract approved buyers and resellers. The identifiers for buyers and resellers typically look the same because they’re long strings of script and numbers inside a text file. Making matters more challenging, it’s typically left to someone in a supporting role to manage the file day-to-day. A little high-level organization goes a long way. Keep a clean file with resellers clearly nested under their respective direct buyers, so that you can easily run tests and make changes.

Prioritize unique value

Create file inclusions that allow all direct buyers as well as those resellers that provide unique value, such as a private marketplace. This is key to understanding supply path optimization and maximizing revenue in a crowded, overlapping marketplace. It’s also the inverse of the initial intention behind app-ads.txt. Because instead of finding and plugging the fraudulent leaks in your supply chain, you’re using the same methodology to put a spotlight where the value is greatest and drive revenue.

Brad Villeggiante is Director of Operations at VRTCAL.