Why Brand Safety Must Be Addressed in Your Digital Marketing Plan

Business owners put great effort into establishing and building their brand image. From the initial decision of what to name the company to the advertising strategy, all decisions help create an image that consumers associate with a brand.

Brand image safety

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that you’ll do things differently.” – Warren Buffett

Mr. Buffett is spot on in his observation regarding how quickly hard work can be ruined. Brand safety, or lack thereof, is an ever-present risk in today’s digital marketing world. Business owners who engage in digital advertising must ensure that their team and agency, if applicable, keep brand safety top of mind throughout the campaign.

What is Brand Safety?

In digital advertising brand safety involves tools and strategies that prevent ads from appearing in or around content that could be damaging to a company’s image.

In theory, brand safety measures provide a reduced risk that ads will appear in or around inappropriate content. However, when advertisers take their focus off brand safety disaster can strike.

Think about some of your favorite family brands. How would your perception of those companies change if it was brought to light that their ads were being shown on adult content sites?

For many consumers, this could turn them off the brand which translates into lost reputation and lower sales. The years that went into building a reputation are destroyed in minutes. Unfortunately, the company may not even know its ads are appearing on unsafe websites.

In early 2019 many brands, including Disney, Epic Games, and Nestlé, removed their ad campaigns from YouTube after a series of brand safety scares. This should serve as a reminder that constant diligence is required when engaging with digital advertising as brands large and small are all subject to the same risks.

Digital advertising

Brand Safety in Digital Advertising

Brand safety should be considered in every advertising campaign, digital or otherwise. However, the fast-paced nature of digital and the ability for anyone to post any content at any time adds unique challenges.

Fake News and Misinformation

Fake news and misinformation sites have drawn attention from advertisers around the world. These sites not only propagate potentially harmful lies, but they may also be used to engage in fraud.

If business owners are not careful, they may find their ads appearing next to false content that can be damaging.

Some advertising networks, such as Google’s AdSense, have taken steps to prohibit ads on sites that have been classified as fake news sites. This is a step in the right direction, but marketers must still be diligent when running digital campaigns.

Hate and Extremist Sites

Unfortunately, hate is still alive in the world. The internet has provided a channel for extremists and other hate groups to disseminate their beliefs. An advertiser’s worst dream is to discover that their ad is running on a hate speech site or next to extremist content.

Even worse than appearing on an extremist site is knowing that a company’s advertisements help to fund the site. Each time an ad is shown the site owner is generating revenue.

The Times discovered that advertisements for international brands are being shown alongside extremist videos on YouTube. The report highlights that many extremist videos have over one million views with the channel owner receiving upwards of $7.60 each time an ad is viewed 1,000 times.

While the world of digital presents unique challenges, marketers can be proactive to prevent finding themselves in unsafe situations.

When Brands Aren’t Safe

Many business owners would be alarmed to find their ads next to hate speech or on extremist sites. Consumers also share this sentiment.

A recent survey from the Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG) and Brand Safety Institute (BSI) discovered that “more than 80 percent of consumers said they would reduce or stop buying a product they regularly purchase if it advertised in a range of hypothetical situations involving extreme or dangerous content.”

Consumers are just as aware of brand safety issues as advertisers. However, consumers have the ability to speak with their wallets. Distancing themselves from a brand that has been associated with negative content is one method by which consumers can voice their opinions.

Brand safety best practices

Brand Safety Best Practices

As a business owner, you have an obligation to ensure that your brand image is protected. Creating a brand safety checklist is one step that can be taken to help keep a company’s image safe online.

Take the following into consideration when creating a brand safety checklist.

The Dirty Dozen

The Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) provides a “Dirty Dozen” list of categories that are considered inappropriate or illegal.

Advertisements appearing alongside the above categories may put a brand’s reputation at risk.

When drafting a safety checklist, it may seem wise to simply include all the above terms in a keyword blacklist. While tempting, this shouldn’t be the de facto strategy.

Blacklists can be useful, but they should be used with care. Businesses that rely solely on a blacklist without looking at context risk losing quality opportunities to reach consumers.

A site promoting crime, for example, is likely not where a reputable business would want to appear. However, an in-depth article from a reputable news publisher discussing crime may be acceptable for some brands. While the content is important, the context must also be considered.

This leads to the next consideration.

Create Your Own Definition of Brand Safety

Blanket statements that “X is always bad/good” can be challenging. What is appropriate for one brand may not be appropriate for another.

Think about a family brand and an extreme sports brand. Where and how they advertise will be different, but one approach isn’t necessarily better than the other.

When creating a safety checklist consider what your company stands for and the image it wants to project. That will help guide where ads should appear.

Be Careful With Keyword Blacklists

If a keyword blacklist is utilized be conscious of unintended consequences. Blocking ads from appearing alongside content without considering context can lead to missed opportunities.

Consider the word “kill”. An article that discusses how to kill weeds might be helpful for a company that sells a weed killer. However, a blacklist with the word “kill” included would prevent an ad from showing next to that article.

Blacklists should be a start, but not considered a panacea. The list will need to be frequently reviewed to be sure you aren’t missing opportunities.

Demand Transparency From Service Providers

To determine if your ads are being placed near unsafe content you must know where ads are being displayed.

Business owners should vet the agencies and ad tech service providers they work with. A commitment to transparency is table stakes. Request full URL reports showing where ads are being served. Ask to see log-level data files. Even samples are acceptable if you don’t have the desire or resources to analyze large data sets.

When selecting an agency or ad tech partner seek to understand:

  • What type of inventory they have access to (premium, remnant)
  • How many vendors they work with
  • What reports they provide and the level of detail
  • If an issue is identified, how is it quickly resolved

“Trust, but verify” is key in digital marketing. Even if your agency or ad tech partners are the most ethical around, accidents can still occur. Look at the data to determine if a campaign is aligning with your brand safety guidelines or not.

Brand protection

In Conclusion

Brand safety requires an always-on mindset. Business owners, their marketing teams, and ad agency should have frequent discussions about what brand safety means.

Digital advertising comes with some risks, but also multiple opportunities. Staying diligent and incorporating a brand safety checklist into each campaign can help companies avoid unsafe situations.


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