Avoiding the Bad Apples: How to Ensure Your Brand Safety Online

Avoiding the Bad Apples: How to Ensure Your Brand Safety Online

After investing a lot in marketing, positive brand perception is everything. Avoiding being associated with the wrong kind of messaging is crucial for brands in 2021. Defined as brand safety, it’s been one of the hottest topics in the digital marketing world over the last couple of years.

What exactly is brand safety?

The Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) defines brand safety as “the practices and tools that are put in place to ensure that a digital advertising campaign will not appear next to any content that is illegal (e.g. drug related content) or dangerous (e.g. pornography or violence).” This has been a particularly big topic since the advent of programmatic advertising – and the US election of 2016, where ‘fake news’ first came to prominence. With the internet full of news stories of dubious quality, advertisers quickly became aware that their advertisements were often advertised next to content of an inappropriate nature. This was undeniably a consequence of the rise of programmatic advertising, which takes up 68% of digital media advertising with $98 billion in ad spend in 2021 – plus the ongoing predominance of social media, particularly the market leader Facebook. Through using segmentation studies, programmatic advertising had automated and made the booking of digital media much easier but also resulted in a loss of control. Often advertisers with lower budgets would end up with lower-quality and potentially damaging slots in the open marketplace. In the meantime, the likes of Facebook and YouTube have faced a number of crises based on controversial user-generated content and their difficulties moderating it. 

What happens when a brand meets a bad apple

Many brands have had hits to their brand safety online, with this IAS study showing 49% of marketers saying in 2019 they had experienced a brand safety issue. And there are examples of this everywhere. For example, British magazine Private Eye ‘malgorithms’ series has in the past shown when a brand advertisement has been placed next to an ad of an inappropriate nature. One particularly glaring example was an advertisement for a walk-in-shower being advertised next to an article about the UN cancelling a Holocaust memorial event. Over on YouTube, the issue of controversial user-generated content was so strong that many brands including Netflix and Nissan quit advertising on the platform in 2017. It was safer for some brands to avoid advertising entirely on the channel, than risk unsavory and brand damaging associations. 

Despite some big improvements (YouTube now employs human content checkers and has tightened up its automated processes), in January 2020 it was revealed that Samsung, L’Oréal, Warner Bros and Danone had all accidentally advertised on videos promoting climate change denial. These misplacements make a big impact on the consumer, with this Harris poll showing that two thirds of consumers would consider leaving a brand if they were seen in a questionable context.

The topic has far from died down since those pre-COVID days: the global health crisis, and the ensuing misinformation and divisive online reactions, has merely made the topic more prevalent than ever before. Advertisers aren’t just expected to avoid aligning themselves with ‘bad apples’, but they are expected to be a good apple themselves. It’s been well documented that consumers want brands to exhibit strong, human characteristics, showing stances on topics such as women’s rights and the environment, while showing empathy and humility too. “While marketers are working with different channels to achieve desired business goals, the user consumes all of this – the wording, look and feel, brand promise plus the environment where the ads are shown – and links this to her perception of the brand,” says our Global Digital Expert, Polina Weber.

“This is why it is so important, especially in the current times of fake news and radical political opinions, to know and own where your ads are displayed while shaping your own company’s brand value at the same time.”

With the internet more of a wild west than ever before, brand safety is more important than it has ever been.

Tips for ensuring your brand safety

Despite great improvements made by the advertising channels, it’s clear that brand safety is still an important focus for brands, who need to be on the ball to ensure they don’t suffer the consequences. Here are a few methods that should help you on your way.

Think about your brand first and foremost

While some sites are fairly toxic to all brands brand safety doesn’t mean the same thing to every brand. What’s safe for some brands is not necessarily safe for others. If you are a flight or travel booking platform you wouldn’t want your ads appearing in a news story about a plane crash and the same story would be totally safe if you were, say, a food delivery brand. It’s crucial that your marketing team compiles a list of what is appropriate and what isn’t, before heading to the more granular tactics.

Change your programmatic partner 

These include programmatic marketing platforms (PMPs), and programmatic direct deals, which include the likes of Integral Ad Science, DoubleVerify and Comscore. All of these demand-side platforms have implemented algorithms and tools now on their platforms to ensure greater brand safety, for example offering you the chance to make ‘negative targets’ and exclude harmful inventory from the get-go. These are great options for advertisers looking for quality (and not dangerous) advertising slots.

Employ machine learning (ML) and AI algorithms 

There are a whole host of algorithms that can help analyse the sites you are advertising on, based on the content, images, objectives and much more. With natural language processing and data analysis, machine learning (ML) and AI extracts keywords and analyses the keywords based on the context in which they are being used. ML/AI is thus able to determine whether the sites are an inappropriate fit for a brand, giving much more than a face-level analysis of a site. This could be because the site is known for fake news for instance, that it is illegal or just that it isn’t the right fit. This is potentially the most sophisticated filter available to brands, allowing marketers to both ensure their brand safety and optimise their brand placements positively. This is something that’s called brand suitability, a more complicated and nuanced evolution of brand safety – simultaneously blocking negative placements and creating positive ones.

Use different types of filters

Less sophisticated, but cheaper is keyword and age filtering. And this one says it on the tin: it’s an application that blocks certain words or phrases that could be harmful for a brand. The one main drawback here is that if a word means the same thing, the filter is unable to recognise that in its simple analysis. Many brands will need a more sophisticated and flexible approach than this, as they’ll be missing out on many appropriate placements otherwise. A more targeted filter is one that looks at sites and the sensitivity of the topics and content on the site. This is something that’s available for instance these days on YouTube.

Make some lists 

Another alternative is to split the list of sites you could advertise on to both good and bad sites. The good ones will include sites that your target audience often visits, while the bad ones are URLs that could be a bad association for your brand. Once you’ve created this list, the media system or program you are using will only accept options from the list of good sites, rejecting any sites from the other. While this isn’t a catch-all territory – as with a keyword and age filter, there will always be sites missing from either list – this is an effective way for brands to take initiative to keep their brand safe.

Monitor, monitor, monitor

It’s crucial to use insight heatmaps to monitor your campaign performance and placements as they are running. With a comprehensive dashboard, marketers can remain aware in real-time of where their brand has been placed – and take decisive action if there is an issue. This applies both to faulty placements as well as bot traffic on ads too.

Let’s keep your brand image sky-high

Whether you’re new to the topic of brand safety or it’s been an issue for your brand beforehand, there are many innovative and sophisticated methods to ensure your brand image stays positive in the ongoing digital age. This shouldn’t affect your ad spend: digital advertising is undeniably a great way to boost performance and brand. Just make sure you are aware of the pitfalls and take the appropriate steps – and your brand image should stay healthy and fully intact.

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