The site list, an explicit rundown of all the sites an advertiser is willing to have on-plan, is a simple and effective way to control for brand safety. Trouble is, it creates a heavy trade-off: scale. Whitelisting can’t counter the very real brand safety challenge at play on programmatic platforms, and, if scale is compromised, it defeats one of the primary benefits of running a campaign programmatically in the first place.
For programmatic to deliver on its promise, it’s got to develop a more sophisticated and trustworthy method for ensuring quality and brand safety, one that relies on technology to accomplish such a guarantee at scale. Until then, marketers using site lists to control for brand safety will often have to accept that their campaigns won’t be delivered in full.
Brand safety requires total transparency about the nature and quality of the inventory and its editorial context, something only the suppliers themselves are close enough to evaluate. That’s why a brand safety solution for programmatic requires a critical and fundamental shift in the role and responsibility for audience targeting from the demand side, where it lives today, back to the supply side. The supply side can survey a wider and more diverse swath of inventory and deliver placements beyond the site list that still meet the marketer’s targeting and brand safety parameters. The supply side has the most unfettered view into the inventory picture.
Then, Now and on with the Future
If you look at the path that programmatic has taken, it started with traditional ad networks and supply-side targeting. At that point in time, 100% of the targeting lived on the supply side, and the advertiser trusted it. The supply side was monitoring its own inventory for brand safety. Whitelisting took place by default.
Once open-auction programmatic emerged, the targeting shifted to the buy side. Brands set up campaigns within their demand-side platform (DSP), picking and choosing segments set by the DSP based on the targeting parameters of that campaign. It’s in this context that the dual-threat of brand safety emerged — risk from audiences targeted across inappropriate sites in open auction or risk impressions delivered against user-generated content on platforms like Facebook and YouTube.
Fraud and viewability were the other, and perhaps original, major contributors as brands uncovered eye-opening amounts of unclean supply ensnared by their broad audience targeting. It’s in response to those threats that brands have since taken the responsibility for whitelisting on themselves, a direct function of targeting living on the demand side.
By now, supply-side players have made major strides to combat fraud, and verification companies have risen in the value chain to ensure they deliver quality. It’s been a long history of demand-side pressure for traffic that is delivered pre-filtered for quality and viewability. The technology has evolved immensely in a short amount of time, with supply-side players investing heavily in fraud detection and elimination technologies themselves, from measuring and scoring GIVT and SIVT to post-bid verification and working with brand safety partners that let them parse out not only at-risk sites but at-risk content at the keyword level.
The result is that advertisers no longer need to preemptively eliminate “all news sites,” for example, if they don’t want to appear alongside inflammatory content because they can identify content categories and keywords at a more granular level. This way, additional inventory on those news sites can be opened up to advertisers, thereby increasing scale.
The trade-offs of brand-side whitelisting have become glaringly clear. Implement a site list (no matter how strategically intended), and the thousands of viable opportunities forecast by the demand side are diluted to merely tens or even zero. Brands simply cannot know what they don’t know, and, with a lack of scale, they will struggle to achieve their desired campaign performance.
By bringing the audience data to the supply side, you now have the unification of user-level targeting with radical transparency into inventory quality. You need both together to evolve past the rote method of the whitelist and execute brand-safe programmatic at scale.