The unprecedented events of 2020 have thrust brand safety into the spotlight yet again. As the digital advertising industry grapples with uncertainty, publishers and advertisers must wrestle with the challenges of a news cycle that’s dominated by a single, risky topic.
Web traffic is surging. However, news and media sites have been unable to turn those record levels of engagement into ad revenue. In part, this is because advertisers don’t have the tools in place to confidently navigate through the challenging content ecosystem.
Among other things, increased uncertainty has led to a growing chorus of advertisers questioning the limitations of traditional brand safety approaches, like keyword blacklists. They are also asking what else can be done to assure brands that their ads won’t appear in unsafe environments.
The answer to such questions may lie in the evolution of brand safety from a one-size-fits-all content ban into a more nuanced approach focused on brand suitability. “Brand safety” has dominated the conversation in digital advertising circles for years. However, “brand suitability” is nascent—having only recently entered the vernacular.
Brand safe, but risky business
Brand safety focuses on marketers’ need to prevent their ads from appearing alongside problematic or inappropriate content. Historically, it used a heavy-handed approach to block ads from appearing near content using certain terms. This was based on keyword blocking and URL blacklisting. What has become increasingly apparent is that those old-school tactics don’t offer the flexibility of customization and control that modern marketers need to safely advertise in today’s programmatic market.
Brand safety roared into public view in 2017. With numerous high-profile incidents involving ads from major brands, marketers everywhere quickly understood the impact of lax brand safety strategies on brand equity. The enormous risk and ensuing cost—both in revenue and brand image—was finally appreciated across the supply chain. From that point on, brand safety became a common discussion among marketers and publishers.
But things have progressed significantly since then. And the pitfalls of blocking specific keywords and whole URLs are glaring. The main problem with blacklisting based on exact matching keywords is that it misses one vital ingredient—context. Context is critical when defining suitable inventory versus isolating damaging content. Without context, the full meaning of the page is determined by a single word. However, that word could have various definitions and interpretations based on the broader story that’s written.
Consider the word “shot” as an example. An advertiser’s first reaction might be to block any content mentioning it due to the word’s association with firearms or injury. However, “shot” is also a word used in the context of healthcare (flu shot), sports (jump shot or chip shot), technology (moon shot), and photography (camera shot).
The same is true for “dead”—a word blacklist providers say is often the number one blocked term by advertisers. It might seem like an obvious choice for a blacklist. But blocking content associated with the word “dead” eliminates inventory associated with the hit TV show The Walking Dead, and popular movies such as Deadpool. Beyond that, pages featuring similar words like “dead heat”, “dead-pan”, “dead tired”, “dead lift”, and “dead zone” would also be blocked. This removes vast inventory (and potentially valuable placements) from the advertiser’s bid.
Words without context are a clumsy and ineffective filter to use for determining brand appropriate inventory. That’s why traditional brand safety tactics are largely ineffective.
The shift to brand suitability
Brand suitability is the logical evolution of brand safety. Where traditional brand safety tools rely on cookie-cutter approaches to avoid unsafe or inappropriate content, brand suitability is more nuanced. Brand suitability identifies the advertising environments that will help digital campaigns drive outcomes for the business and uses individual brand profiles, market research insights, and strategic positioning to find and target specific environments for advertising.
Publishers have played—and will continue to play—a monumental role in the shift from brand safety to brand suitability, due to the simple fact that they are disproportionately affected by the use of blacklisting and keyword blocking. These outdated tactics can limit audiences and scale for advertisers. And they rarely offer the robust protection modern brands need, so the impact can be severe.
The impact on publishers
Broad blacklisting and keyword blocking mean publishers cannot monetize their inventory in its entirety. Incorrect categorizations and over-blocking often mean that relevant and high-value impressions are lost along with the associated revenue. Compounding the effect of this is the fact that publishers are already operating in a cluttered, hyper-competitive online environment. Even if only a small percentage of content is blocked or incorrectly categorized as unsafe and removed from the bid, it can have a devastating effect.
The implications can extend far beyond missed revenue opportunities for individual publishers. Over-blocking and blacklisting can leave a lasting impact on the broader media and publishing industry. Advertising dollars being funneled away from reputable news and content sources also open up the door for content farms, low-quality journalism, and intellectual property theft, as fringe publishers try to game the system.
A better way
Advertisers want their messages seen by receptive audiences who have a positive contextual association. And along the way, their work can help fund reputable news organizations and publishers. It’s doubtful that any advertisers’ goal is to inadvertently penalize media organizations for covering current events and providing essential content to their audiences. While there will always be high-risk content that’s not appropriate for all advertisers, a blanket, keyword-centric approach is not the answer.
Brand suitability can help bridge that divide. It provides rigorous context-based protections for advertisers from appearing near unsafe, illegal, or inappropriate content. It also green lights significant inventory that is safe and suitable for most advertisers. Shifting to a brand suitability approach enables advertisers to confidently navigate the online news cycle. And, importantly, it helps publishers fully monetize their inventory, so the health of the advertising, news, and media industries is maintained well into the future.