Beyond the blacklist: The best tools you need to ensure brand safety

With the recent announcement from Google that YouTube might never be 100% brand-safe, brands are once again being forced to grapple with the thorny issue of brand safety.

Blacklists have emerged as the most popular tool for dealing with the most common concerns, being used by over 60% of marketers in the last year. While this approach does effectively insulate brands from unsafe environments, many have found it also acts as a barrier between themselves and potential audiences, reducing reach and ad-spend ROI.

Thankfully, the wide range of alternative tools available to marketers means that it is entirely possible to ensure brand safety without limiting your reach in the process. The focus for brands needs to be on educating themselves about which tools will work best for them. Brand safety is a layered issue, with threat vectors varying widely across geographies, industries and even time, but below are a few of the more powerful tools that can help brands keep themselves secure.

Work directly with publishers

Buying ad space directly from an already trusted publisher allows marketers to adopt a more hands on approach to their brand safety initiatives. In every major brand safety scare of the the last few years, brands repeatedly found themselves exposed by simply not knowing where their ads were being placed. A direct relationship with publishers is a popular way to neutralise this danger, being used by 55% of marketers in the last year.

This approach means that advertisers can communicate quickly with their selected publishers, allowing them to make quick changes on the fly when potential threats to brand safety emerge. The main trade-offs with this tactic are the high costs that come with high value placements, and the increased engagement needed from advertisers to keep multiple direct relationships working in tandem.

Context aware language detection software

Language context detection is an evolution of the more commonly used keyword detection systems. Rather than just flagging pages as unsafe based on the presence of an unsafe word (curse words, racial epithets, etc.) these systems identify brand unsafe text based on the context in which it is used in. This ensures that innocent uses of a word are not punished unjustly and is incredibly useful for filtering out instances where offensive words appear in an acceptable way. For example, if a political figure were to use offensive language in an official speech, most news outlets would choose to report the statement uncensored.

Often used in conjunction with other tools, language context detection software is used by around 21% of marketers to bolster their brand safety. Advertisers can choose from hundreds or even thousands of keywords and contexts to avoid, although expanding an exemption list to this scale will inevitably begin to affect ROI in the same way that a full blacklist will.

Image recognition technology (computer vision)

An AI-powered technology that uses neural networks to identify and sort images. Like all AI centric systems, it requires the proper inputs to produce the best results. But once it has these, it can identify images that constitute brand unsafe content with an incredible degree of accuracy. From there it can automatically keep advertisements out of these unsafe environments, or just advise against it if the marketers want to maintain human control over the decision-making process.

With images being such a prominent medium across the internet, being able to identify those that could be a threat at scale has become increasingly important, which is why we’ve seen use of Image Recognition technology rise from 12% in 2017 to 21% in 2018.

Adopt the ads.txt protocol

Ads.txt is a security protocol introduced by the Interactive Advertising Bureau to improve transparency around programmatic advertising.

Despite being one of the more technically complex solutions for addressing brand safety, the way the protocol works is actually quite simple. An ads.txt file listing all the third-party vendors authorised to sell advertising space on a given location is placed in the root of a publisher’s website. This certificate gives publishers a way to tell the world who is authorized to sell their ad inventory and means that advertisers can be confident that their ads will appear on the sites they have selected.

While a lot of large ad firms have thrown their support behind ads.txt as a tool for increasing transparency and reducing fraud, it is only as useful as its adoption rate. Rather than being a panacea for brand safety and ad fraud, ads.txt represents a step on the road towards a more transparent system of programmatic receipting.

Each of these tools brings different strengths to the table, and it is very rare that one system alone will be able to perfectly balance brand safety without negatively impacting reach and ROI. In fact, the best way to achieve this balance is often to combine two or more tools to create an overlapping defence.

For example, image recognition can find brand unsafe content that a keyword identifier would miss, and vice-versa. As these tools continue to grow in prominence, need for brands to choose between safety and ROI will start to be recognised as a false binary choice. Whatever form the next brand safety crisis takes, the advertisers that are using the right tools will be the ones to move past it without it negatively impacting their reputations, and perhaps more importantly their reach and ad-spend ROI.  

Interested in hearing leading global brands discuss subjects like this in person?

Find out more about Digital Marketing World Forum (#DMWF) Europe, London, North America, and Singapore.  

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