Shielding Your Institution’s Brand From Toxic Online Content

In the Digital Age, financial marketers are increasingly worried about their brand’s ads appearing on websites alongside inappropriate content. Thanks to the mainstream media’s coverage of issues like fake news and ad fraud, the subject of “brand safety” has become a hot topic in the online marketing world.

Many financial marketers are starting to question how they can balance brand safety with the efficiency and performance of digital media. This is a particular concern with programmatic media buying, where ads are purchased on platforms that automatically distribute them across a vast array of participating websites.

Take the case of Nordstrom. Earlier this year, Nordstrom took heat from customers who saw the retailer’s ads on alt-right website AT&T, Johnson & Johnson, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Walmart were among many major marketers who pulled ads from Google after the brands were seen alongside YouTube videos with racist and anti-Semitic content.

Similarly, one big bank reigned in their ad strategy to ensure their brand would only be seen in the appropriate context. The bank has cut back its display ads from 400,000 sites to about 5,000 preapproved sites.

The subject of brand safety isn’t something new or unique to digital. For decades, brand managers kept their commercials out of violent TV shows or away from channels that present risqué content. The same idea holds true in digital. However, in TV there are a finite number of channels and shows that an advertiser needs to evaluate. But when you use online programmatic media buying platforms, there are billions of opportunities to buy an impression. This makes it much more challenging to monitor the placement of advertisements, and do so in real time.

While marketers will never have 100% oversight or control over the adjacent context of their ads — online or off — there are a few tools that marketers can utilize to address brand safety concerns, each with its own unique benefits and challenges.

1.) Whitelisting

This approach is when you select a predefined list of vetted brand safe sites or site placements on which to run media. The key benefit of whitelisting is that you have direct knowledge of the type of content that a site produces, significantly reducing the likelihood that your brand’s ads will appear next to inappropriate content.

There are a few challenges with whitelisting. First, whitelisting limits the scale of your campaign. The internet is a vast ecosystem that is made up of a limited number of highly trafficked mainstream publishers and many smaller niche sites that exist on the long tail. If you limit your targeting to a select number of sites, you may miss out on opportunities to deliver ads to your target audience when they are in-market for a financial product.

Whitelisting can also be a resource intensive process that might overburden media teams that should primarily be focused on media planning and buying strategies. Whitelisted sites also tend to be more established premium properties, which typically demand higher prices that could impact campaign efficiency. For performance-driven financial marketers, the increased media cost may outweigh the perceived benefit of an intensive whitelisting process.

2.) Blacklisting

Blacklisting is another approach that is used often in the digital space. Blacklisting is when you suppress specific sites or pages within a site that have questionable content from your media buys. While this is a viable tactic, it can be a challenging and resource intensive game of whack-a-mole to monitor and identify the bad sites. New sites launch all the time, so blacklisting doesn’t completely solve the problem. Also, if you do blacklist an entire domain, you may be missing out on placements within the site that do not raise brand safety concerns. It’s important to be precise when considering a site for blacklisting.

3.) Brand Safety Technology

Within media buying platforms, marketers can choose to filter out sites in specific content categories (e.g., alcohol, drugs, gambling, etc.). There are also add-on solutions from ad-tech vendors such as Integral Ad Science and DoubleVerify that use automated technology to block ads from showing up next to inappropriate content and verify that ads are placed on intended sites. These strong solutions are integrated into the digital media supply chain, but there are incremental costs associated with using them. Some major publishers may also limit these technologies from monitoring their respective sites since they don’t want to share their data with 3rd parties.

To that end, social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Snapchat are major sources of user generated content, which can be difficult to monitor from a brand safety perspective. However, these platforms do recognize the importance of brand safety, especially given recent news coverage, so they are ramping up their own in-house solutions.

As important as these tools and tactics are to addressing brand safety concerns, it’s even more important that the advertiser and/or their media agency have a solid understanding of the nuances of brand safety and the digital media ecosystem. They need to be held accountable and demand transparency from technology partners and publishers who are ultimately responsible for buying the media and placing the ads.

Brand Safety vs. Marketing Performance

Financial marketers need to consider tradeoffs between brand safety and marketing performance. Obviously financial marketers want to achieve their marketing objectives without negatively impacting their brand equity. But implementing tighter brand safety controls can impact campaign performance so financial marketers need to objectively assess their marketing strategies.

1) What are your campaign objectives? The first thing financial marketers should think about is the campaign objectives. Is the marketing objective more branding focused like driving awareness and consideration or more performance driven like acquiring new credit card customers? If the campaign is more performance driven and efficiently achieving outcomes is a primary objective, then it would be reasonable to loosen some controls around brand safety to gain efficiencies through audience based targeting in environments that may not have the same constraints in place as premium publishers.

2) Who is your target audience? The second thing to consider is the target audience. If financial marketers are trying to reach niche audiences like financial advisors or small business owners, then scale may not be as important compared to reaching audiences in mass market products like checking accounts or credit cards. As we discussed with whitelisting, restricting the number of sites or limiting impression opportunities with tight brand safety controls may prevent you from reaching your target audience, which is in-market for your product when they visit long tail sites.

3) How well-known is your brand? The final thing to consider is your brand’s position in the marketplace. Is it a well-known, established brand with high levels of brand awareness that was built over the years like a traditional bank or is it a challenger brand trying to break through the clutter like a fintech startup? If the former, your brand already has a lot of built up equity that is at risk if a brand safety issue occurs. With a challenger brand, you may be able to loosen some constraints for performance gains without having to worry as much about negative impacts.

After taking these factors into account, a financial marketer should be able to navigate to brand safety by implementing the appropriate levers of control without adversely impacting their performance-driven marketing objectives.

Gil Biegacz is the VP of Digital Strategy at Merkle. Prior to joining Merkle, Gil was head of strategy for financial services at Rocket Fuel where he helped marketers leverage programmatic media buying and data management solutions to achieve their business goals. Gil has also held a variety of leadership positions in integrated marketing, product management, and marketing strategy at Citigroup’s consumer credit division.

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