The Shifting Landscape of Digital Brand Safety
It’s a marketer’s worst nightmare: Learning your brand’s digital ads have been seen alongside terrorist recruitment videos and content created by hate groups. That’s exactly what happened to many advertisers in March of 2017 as word spread that ads on Google-owned video platform YouTube were shown with violent and graphic content. The resulting controversy, advertiser boycott, and ongoing industry debate brought the hot-water topic of brand safety – a brand’s requirement for ads to appear in or next to relevant, appropriate content – to a boil.
The association between ads and the content they’re seen with has been a concern among brands for years, but never has it been so keenly felt as in the age of widespread digital and social advertising. As more brand safety headlines have appeared and consumers have spoken out on social media, the ad industry has been shaken to the highest levels. In fact, according to a September 2017 study conducted by the CMO Council, 67 percent of marketers stated that poor “adjacency” (negative context from content surrounding digital ads) had damaged perceptions of their brand qualities and values.
So How Did We Get Here?
Digital advertising has been around for close to two decades now, so brand safety itself is not a new issue. What is new are landmark events and shifts in the brand safety landscape. These key things are contributing to brand safety’s importance in the advertising conversation of the last few years:
- Quantity over quality in ad buying. The increasing demand for digital ad inventory (across social media as well as digital video and display) has been met with programmatic methods of buying and placing digital ads automatically, allowing efficient reach at an unprecedented scale. This created a growing appetite among advertisers for cheaper and cheaper reach, met by ad networks selling that cheap reach on a widening universe of ad placements. As the available ad inventory stretches further and faster, ads are placed on fringe sites espousing hate speech or on open-content sites like YouTube next to videos showing terrorism, violence, nudity, and more. This has also given rise to myriad issues linked to brand safety, including ad fraud, viewability, and media buying transparency. As the ad industry seeks high volumes of impressions for cheap, it loses a lot of the value of premium ad placements and high-quality experiences for consumers.
- Brand safety errors from the world’s biggest ad platforms. Google and Facebook together control an enormous majority of the digital ad inventory in the U.S. (over 60 percent across both companies, according to eMarketer) and in the last year, they’ve given brands reason to worry. From Facebook’s multiple issues with fake news to Google’s brand safety controversies, marketers are realizing that the leading ad platforms have been too lax in the areas of fraud, transparency, and brand safety. In 2017, an increasing number of voices joined the chorus demanding more from Google, Facebook, and other ad networks in these areas.
- An increasingly volatile cultural landscape. Since the 2016 presidential election, the U.S. has been divided over many issues, with controversies centered on race, patriotism, immigration, and more fueled largely by social media conversation. These flames have been fanned further by the rise of fake news – false headlines and hoaxes that spread rapidly on Facebook and Twitter. As a result, even marketers who attempt to stay neutral on most issues are not immune to brand-safety crises, as it’s easier than ever for an innocuous ad to appear next to a terror recruitment video, hate-speech-filled fake news article, or even content portraying a strong (and potentially controversial) political opinion. The increase in division over more issues in our country than ever before means there’s exponentially more harmful territory for ad placements than ever before.
The Brand Safety Landscape Is Changing
Even as the brand safety issue comes sharply into focus for marketers, it is continually changing, with new developments on a weekly (even daily) basis. What’s driving this change?
- Social media as a (still) growing advertising destination…As social media networks like Facebook/Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, Pinterest, and Twitter continue to grow and compete with each other for advertising dollars, the volume, locations, and possible formats for ads grow as well. Undeniably, Facebook is leading this process as it expands its video capabilities (introducing mid-roll ads), continues news feed advertising (allowing brands to be in-feed with potentially damaging content), and expands ads across thousands of sites using Facebook Audience Network (which has contributed to additional brand safety issues). As video content increasingly becomes the norm for consumers’ social media experience, it opens opportunities for ads that may or may not be running during or near inappropriate content.
- …and a consumer watchdog platform. Consumers have been utilizing social media’s two-way communication to give real-time feedback to brands for years, but recently social media has become more popular as a way to demand brand response for brand safety violations. In December 2016, online advertisers came under fire for advertising on controversial conservative news site Breitbart, and the consumer backlash toward those advertisers was manifested on Twitter, where a new account called “Sleeping Giants” was created with the purpose of drawing the spotlight (and groups of angry Twitter users) toward advertisers whose programmatic ad buys had placed ads on the site. As consumers – who often assume brands are supporting controversial material – grow more accustomed to Twitter and Facebook as platforms to unite in voicing protest, brands must respond quickly and effectively.
- More platform tools for verification and transparency are on their way (but they won’t solve everything). As mentioned, large ad networks, specifically Google and Facebook, own a huge portion of the world’s advertising inventory. In 2017, they both came under fire for issues related to brand safety and transparency. Google has stated it will be working diligently to improve brand safety measures, and Facebook recently made similar claims. Mounting pressure from marketers in 2017 will manifest as useful standards, brand safety tools, and more transparent reporting from Google and Facebook in 2018. Be on the lookout for announcements about brand safety standards from both companies, and make sure your own brand safety standards align. Both companies will likely release tools that bring standardization and a smoother workflow to the process of checking brand safety across ad placements. And both Google and Facebook will continually face demand for crystal-clear reporting as marketers continue to invest heavily in advertising across both platforms. However, these measures will be more reactive than proactive, and are only a supplement to a forward-thinking approach to keeping your brand safe.
How Can You Stay Brand-Safe?
- Identify current risks. Consider this an opportunity to review your current level of brand safety. Contact your advertising partners and request lists of the sites and social content you’re currently running ads against. It may take a lot of work and involve a short-term decrease in efficiency, but if it helps you avoid negative headlines like the dozens of brands mentioned in 2017 alone, it’s worth it. If your ad partners can’t provide a database, ask why. Seek new solutions.
- Don’t ignore the human element. Programmatic ad buying, tools, algorithms, and lists are useful and efficient, but no automated solution will ever fully replace human judgment and intuition. We (humans) understand context, we understand our audience, we understand the cultural climate in which we live. While there is no blanket solution for including human discernment in the process of buying digital and social advertising, it’s still crucially important for your brand. Whether it’s a human check of your list of sites on which you advertise, a recurring check-in with your agency or ad network, or some other method, take steps to insert a human element into your digital ad-buying process.
- Recognize the importance of social media. Social media are now more widely known as tools for direct feedback from consumers to brands, and in a politically chaotic, divisive era, brands who run into safety issues by running ads against divisive content (on one side or the other) will hear about it quickly. Be ready to use social media as the two-way communication tools they were meant to be. Develop a brand safety playbook so that the steps and lines of communications are already established. Communicate proactively, and pair social media communication with decisive action. Consumers asking for information and action on social media won’t patiently wait 48 or 72 hours for your brand to respond.
- Tailor your media plan to your brand’s principles. The landscape of brand safety has changed – not only are there dangers in being paired with violent or sexual content, but the increasingly turbulent and divisive political environment means that even appearing with political or cause-related content could spark a Twitter-fueled brand safety crisis. It is increasingly harder for a brand to truly stay “neutral” on issues, so if you haven’t already, now is the time to decide what your brand stands for – its principles – and reflect that in the sites and content you include in your digital media plan. Opt in to the sites that align with your principles; opt out of the ones that don’t. This is not an easy or quick process, but it’s becoming more important every day. Taking these steps will anchor you in the midst of a rapidly shifting brand safety landscape.