Article

Nick Welch
Nick Welch 14 January 2019

Levels of risk: are we too strict on brand safety?

With unsavoury ad placements potentially harming consumers’ opinion of a brand, the concept of being too strict with brand safety might sound ridiculous. Yet with marketers intensifying their efforts to avoid ads appearing alongside inappropriate content that is precisely what is happening.    

Brand safety is still a major challenge, with almost two-fifths of marketers admitting to running ads on websites that are considered unsafe. Consumers take a negative view of unsafe ad placements, with 77% of users saying advertising adjacent to unsavoury or objectionable content can damage their perception of a brand. The blame for this is laid squarely with marketers, as 62% believe a brand has full control over where its ads appear.

For most marketers, the answer to the brand safety issue is to create ever-longer and more restrictive keyword blacklists, blocking ads from appearing alongside any content that contains specific words relating to subjects they feel are inappropriate or controversial. But negative keyword filtering is a flawed tactic and can cause marketers to take a stricter approach to brand safety. Keyword blocking can reduce the reach of a brand campaign and limit the ability to access premium inventory by excluding content due to the presence of one keyword, even when that word is used in a positive context.

Blacklists, for instance, often include words relating to negative news stories. But imagine if the word ‘stab’ is used as part of the expression ‘stab in the dark’ or the word ‘crime’ is used in the phrase ‘crime against fashion.’ These types of phrases could easily appear in a popular article on a premium publisher website, that reaches the brand’s target audience with no risk to its reputation, but if the words appear on a list of unacceptable terms the placement will be off limits. Keyword blacklists are also limited in their effectiveness because content can still relate to unfavourable themes and be damaging to a brand even when it doesn’t contain the specific terms on the list.      

Marketers must stop relying on increasingly restrictive keyword filters and take a different approach to brand safety. The first step is to really understand the nature of the issue. All too often one-stop-shop style vendors confuse marketers by lumping together brand safety, viewability, and fraud issues in one quality bucket, making it difficult to see how effective their brand safety measures really are. Brand safety is an exclusive issue that is purely about ensuring messaging is not hindered or the brand’s reputation called into question by the context in which it is placed, and requires specialist techniques and advanced technologies to protect brands from increasing risk. Viewability is a metric issue related to efficiency, while fraud is a procurement problem related to displaced budgets. The technologies behind the two are very different from those needed to achieve brand safety, which is the only issue that requires a direct understanding of content to protect a brand’s reputation in the eyes of the consumer.  

The second step for marketers is to reduce their reliance on basic and outdated brand safety techniques. Lists of banned or ‘negative’ keywords are one of the most prevalent tactics, but marketers also blacklist and whitelist entire websites; another strategy that can leave them missing out on valuable placements narrowing delivery and potential performance. Rather than excluding certain keywords or sites, brands should shift their focus to context. Using advanced semantic technologies such as natural language processing, which reads online content and processes it in the same way as a human brain, marketers can really understand the context of content at page-level, as well as identifying the sentiment, which is impossible when applying negative keywords. A semantic contextual approach to brand safety allows marketers to determine whether or not a placement is safe and beneficial for their brand regardless of the presence of specific keywords.

Once marketers have a better understanding of what brand safety means and are using advanced technologies to analyse the context of content, they can broaden their strategy from a basic level of brand safety to a superior level of brand care. While brand safety relies on a generic concept of what is unsafe, perhaps including world news, violence, adult content, or hate speech, brand care takes a much more nuanced approach. It considers the core values and beliefs of each individual brand and defines what should be avoided for that specific company and its audience, such as financial scandals, bad business practices or product recalls.

Instead of delivering a one-size-fits all solution, brand care customises safety criteria to products, industries and values; after all every brand is unique and content that is considered dangerous for an automotive manufacturer could be a prime placement for any other brand. Brand care is about more than steering clear of standardised categories of harmful content, it is about creating solutions that identify placements aligned with the core values of the brand and avoiding contexts that could be negative for that company even if they don’t fall into the standard definition of unsavoury content.        

The idea of being too strict on brand safety may seem nonsensical, but for marketers relying on outdated, clumsy techniques such as keyword filtering it is a reality. Brands can keep adding keywords to their blacklists, but it will only restrict their access to inventory without necessarily ensuring brand safety. Instead marketers should be looking to advanced solutions that focus exclusively on protecting their brand, analyse the true meaning and context of page-level content, and take a nuanced approach to brand care, factoring in brand values not just generic definitions of brand safety. 

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