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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

The bad ad problem: balancing short-term profits and long-term success

October 19, 2021 | By Tobias Silber, CBO – GeoEdge@tobiassilber

There are telltale signs that digital publishers haven’t embraced a user-first approach to monetization. Frequently, these unwelcome surprises come in the form of bad ads. There’s a subtle, yet crucial safety issue at play – that of the end user, and to publishers.  

Bad ads have become more tangible in recent years. They range from offensive and unpleasant imagery to off-brand messaging. Unfortunately, they have a raft of negative effects. These include user churn, widespread user complaints, and a serious dent in monetization.

In 2021, 76% of publishers reported ad quality challenges affected user experience.  Sixty-six percent of publishers reported that ad quality issues impacted their revenue, underscoring how vital it is to adopt a user-first approach. 

User experience expectations are changing, and working practices must keep up. Considering fundamental recent shifts in user sensitivity and expectations, we can’t expect outdated approaches to remain effective. 

The brand suitability question 

With 35% of publishers experiencing worsening ad quality challenges, the pressure is on for publishers to consistently deliver on-brand experiences. In the last 12 months, the definition of brand safety has evolved. These days, the focus is on the distinction between brand safety and brand suitability. It’s no longer enough for publishers to wonder, “Is this creative acceptable for a premium publisher?” The question now must be, “Is this acceptable for my audience, my message, and the content on this page?” That is the philosophy behind a user-first approach. 

Poor ad quality threatens the publisher-audience relationship. However, nearly half of all publishers say they lack the tools to control the ads that appear across their digital properties. Misleading links in ads are the primary type of low-quality ad publishers are seeing – 48% of publishers say they’ve seen such ads. Almost as many (44%) of publishers report witnessing fake news in ad content, 28% reporting links to sites with security threats (malvertising), 31% reporting violent content, and 27% reporting explicit or offensive content. 

Publishers are brands too 

To cultivate strong relationships with their audiences, publishers must deliver engaging, relevant advertising that works for their brand. And every ad counts towards retaining user loyalty, engagement, and ultimately, monetization.  

Publishers require custom controls to maintain their standards and values because there is no universal guide for what counts as a “good” or “bad” ad. In fact, publishers are demanding customization, with 47% reporting they need “more control and transparency” from their ad quality tools. 

Real-time protection against off-brand ads is essential to maintaining a positive user experience. Realtime ad quality protection enables publishers to avoid advertising that is inappropriate for their brand’s unique sensitivities and values but may be fully appropriate for another brand. Today, advertising must be aligned with a publisher’s brand based on its sentiment, tone, and messaging.

A dynamic need 

It is nearly impossible for a publisher to regain a user’s trust once the user has seen an ad that contradicts the publisher’s tone or looks suspicious, or especially if the user clicks through to a deceptive ad and lands on a scam website. In the world of brand suitability, it’s often “one strike and you’re out.” 

While an overall approach to brand suitability, trending topics, and news or event cycles is a must, continual diligence is needed. A user-first approach requires that publishers roll up their sleeves and assess suitability on the ground to ensure their audience’s experience remains on-brand. In short, brand suitability is not static. 

Publishers don’t have to start from scratch. Real-time ad quality tools that provide granularity exist to eliminate the heavy lifting. Setting content parameters and reviewing ads on a site is not merely a maintenance task for ad ops. It’s a vital component of a publisher’s business strategy

The way forward

Publishers have devoted time and resources to assure brand-safe environments for advertisers. Now, publishers must remember to devote the same attention to brand suitability for their own brand and users. Going forward, a user-first approach requires publishers to align page content and ad content, and consider them holistically. That control requires full visibility into all ad content on each page, as well as granular customization for their unique audiences. 

Boosting ad quality translates into revenue upside and enables a brand to stand out. When a user-first approach informs ad quality decisions, the benefits are felt by publishers and users alike.

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