Audience Buying Delivers People, Not Safety

At this moment, there is a popular online platform facing an advertising crisis. Fueled by both user-generated and premium content, this platform generates incredible engagement numbers with a massive audience, but is struggling amid fears that brand messages are lining up alongside unsafe and unsavory content.   

Obviously, I’m referring to YouTube, but if you’ve been around the digital ad space long enough, you’ve heard this argument before. It was top of mind with many brands and agencies less than six years ago, when many were hesitant to buy inventory next to user-generated videos.

Safety has always been an issue, and it will continue to be a problem if brands and agencies aren’t proactive. We saw some choose not to manage the problem until it necessitated dire action.

This is the result of a few industry trends. Programmatic technology and automation swept through the industry in the past half-decade, shifting the buying focus to audience while diminishing the importance of content adjacency. Brands are so eager to find the “right” or “best” consumers that they give less thought than ever to the kind of content the ad appears alongside.

The current panic over YouTube is what happens when that pendulum swings all the way to one side.

The tricky thing will be avoiding swinging back too far in the other direction, which we’re already seeing. P&G CMO Mark Pritchard, speaking at the 4As Transformation conference in early April, said that he has a “zero-tolerance standard when it comes to brand safety."

That’s certainly a good intention, but it’s a tad extreme. While many brands may strive for 100% safety in a digital buy, it’s unrealistic and doesn’t acknowledge the complexity and performance of the tools used for targeting and the scale marketers demand.

An extreme stance on brand safety often leads marketers to ignore the granular control they can take and instead cast a wide net, cutting out large swaths of inventory. In the end, the lower the tolerance for safety, the more challenging it is for brands to achieve their reach and frequency goals.

The truth is, while brands may not necessarily want to be associated with certain kinds of content, it’s consumers who actually seek that content out. If they see an ad before the content, they may not care, and if the brand doesn’t care, that may actually be a winning scenario.

The best solution falls somewhere in between the two extremes. Brands can’t adopt austere stances toward brand safety, lest they give up any notion of scale, automation and efficiency. Nor can they continue to ignore it all together. They need to pull back from a totally audience-centric buying approach that only uses rudimentary site blacklists, and instead lean more on page-level contextual signals for baking brand safety back into the buying process.

 A deeper analysis of the unique context and the sentiment of the content is crucial, and unfortunately unavailable from older keyword-based solutions.

Brands need to develop customized definitions of “safety,” too. There is no blanket definition of “safe” content that all brands will agree to, so brands need to actually create their own unique strategies. This is not all that different from the ways brands buy programmatic media now, where they define the value of each impression based on their campaign goals.

The future of media and creative strategy is a combination of increased relevance derived through machine learning and other audience cues.  A continued reliance on pursuing an audience at all costs – no matter where they are on the Web – will lead to additional examples of brand messages aligning with undesirable content.

As brands outline their safety strategies, they need to think of the contextual tools they have at their disposal and consider how to set unique, customized parameters appropriate for their brand and industry. Only by applying and constantly monitoring those strategies can advertisers truly take control of online brand safety.

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