Gary Danks Gary Danks 6th Sep, 2019


Everybody, at some point, is ‘guilty’ of seeing only what they want to see, It’s part of human nature to sometimes ignore the truth rather than face the unpleasant reality. Call it self-preservation or what you will, either way, it’s delaying the inevitable. 

Now, I’m not a psychology expert – but psychology has a big part to play in how people address the problem of fraudulent app installs.

Having had hundreds of conversations in the industry on the subject, I’ve come to realise that fraudulent installs have a kind of placebo effect on those who buy them. We could, in fact, refer to fraudulent installs as "placebo installs".  

I’m not saying that placebo installs don't have any benefits, they do, but they only have a psychological benefit to the buyer who’s buying them, making them feel that what their doing is working. Placebo installs do however have a hugely negative impact on the app business who’s paying for them and this can be proven with indisputable data.  

The power of placebo

Most people like to think that they couldn’t be fooled into thinking that a placebo – “a measure designed merely to humour or placate the recipient” – has any genuine value. But it will if you let it, especially if it’s been going on for some time and your reputation depends on it.

In his book, ‘The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science’, Will Storr examines the strength of the placebo effect, calling it an “invisible force”, and how it can “skew the results of any medical trial”.

People can believe so strongly in a placebo that they can almost will themselves better, Storr suggests. The key word here is “almost”, because no matter how much you want the placebo to work the reality is, it doesn't, and in the end, the illness that the patient is being treated for will get them. This is exactly the same as the placebo install.

Everyone is swallowing placebo installs

In the case of placebo installs, user acquisition managers, marketers, CEOs, all want to believe that their ad networks are only selling them legitimate installs – they even have the marketing data to back it up, but think about it, of course the data backs it up - it’s fraud, it’s meant to look real.    

Even if you already use a fraud detection service, If you’re prepared to go digging deeper and ask some uncomfortable questions, you’ll likely to see a truth that’s different from the one that’s presented to you. You might even have your suspicions already that you’re being fed a placebo rather than the real thing. What harm would it do in adopting a more critical eye? 

Depending on your position within the business, there are a number of reasons why you might see only what you want to see. They all stem from the fear of being held accountable.  It’s very hard for someone to find all the fraudulent installs when their livelihood depends on them not finding all the fraudulent installs. If you were presented with data that said you had wasted millions of dollars of the company's money, would you take that to your boss, tell your investors or report it to the markets? 

We have a very real case happening at the moment, with Uber suing their agency and the entire ad-network supply chain for supplying over $70m worth of fraudulent app installs. On this very rare occasion, the right person took the incredibly brave decision to blow the whistle. There are thousands of companies where this is going on, but people don’t have the courage of their convictions to call them out. 

UA and marketing teams shouldn’t feel guilty for being fooled by the bad players in the ad-network ecosystem. By and large, everybody is having to come to terms with placebo installs.

Weaning off placebo installs

It’s time to say that enough is enough. Instead of paying ad networks thousands or millions a month for placebo installs (for something that has no value to your business other than to make it feel like it’s achieving something in this moment), put that money to good use.

It is going to be uncomfortable, even painful to see what's really there (in terms of genuine vs fraudulent installs), but as they say, "The truth shall set you free." Facing the truth will set you apart from the competition in how much pain you can avoid down the road, and ultimately, in how successful you and your app business can be.

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