Accidental Ad-Blocking: The Brand-Safety Snag that Advertisers Can Fix

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In an age of fake news and online content that jeopardizes legitimate advertisers, brand-safety tools have never been more important. However, when it comes to ads that brands want to publish on the web as well as in-app, there’s a brand-safety technology snag that many advertisers don’t know about — and it’s costing them in-app impressions.

Think of it as accidental ad-blocking. In the sections that follow, let’s unpack what’s causing this ad-viewability disconnect and then highlight two ways brands, agencies, and publishers can address the challenge, helping to solve it system-wide.

Ad-Blind: How and Why Accidental Blocking Arises
The brand-safety snag arises from the difference between web-based content and in-app publishing. Namely, desktop and mobile web both use established ad-serving technologies (i.e. JavaScript ad tags) and mobile apps use an SDK-delivered ad experience.

When it comes to web-ad units in a self-service programmatic environment, the advertiser sets its data target, its wanted frequency, a budget, the inventory it wants to target, the creative it wants to use. The advertiser also decides what kinds of places the ad will appear — what defines a brand-safe environment and what third-party ad-verification partners they’ll use. These verification partners have invested significant resources to build technology that breaks through the ad unit’s inline frame, analyzing the context of the page (i.e. URL, text, images, and the like). If the brand-safety settings of the advertiser are met, along with other targeting criteria, a demand-side platform then bids on that eligible inventory.

The mobile in-app ecosystem doesn’t use the same ad tech to deliver ads, however. More importantly, the technology that analyzes the context of a web page can’t do the same for in-app publisher pages. And so, in this mobile universe, app publishers can’t look at the contextual details of an app page in the same way they look at the web.

Today, the response from ad-verification partners is often similar to what it was during the early days of desktop: it’s to block the entire app. Because the partner can’t get page-level contextual measurement, an entire publisher is removed from eligible buying — even if only 10% of its supply might include questionable brand-safety content.

On the publisher’s side, this response amounts to headaches. That is, publishers must now determine who is the gatekeeper — agency or ad-verification company — and then they must convince that gatekeeper that the app in question should be on the “safe” list. This is a problem the industry runs into time and time again. It happened in desktop when ad-verification and contextual-targeting companies promised what they couldn’t deliver. Eventually, the companies remedied some of those desktop scale issues, but history is now repeating itself in the mobile in-app space.

Solving for the Brand-Safety Snag: Education + Direct Relationships
To solve for accidental ad-blocking, publishers, agencies, and advertisers need to give new attention to two key factors: better education around how the technology works, and deeper relationships with publishers to ensure that ads appear in brand-safe ways.

First, agencies need to do a better job of educating their brand-partners when it comes to the pitfalls of formats like the ones we’ve just addressed. They need to explain to advertisers that there are key differences between the environments in which these options work and those in which they will not. And they need to make another point clear, too: just because a stakeholder can’t apply its ad-verification partner technology to the in-app environment, this doesn’t mean that the publisher is not brand safe. Simple tactics like maintaining whitelists and blacklists go a long way as first safeguards against unsafe content. Brands are then empowered to set ad parameters accordingly, evolving to a phased approach in which ad units become available in particular environments.

The solution, then, relies upon understanding where brand-safety and ad-unit technology sits within the pantheon, within the landscape of publishers, agencies, and advertisers. At the same time, if a brand wants to run ads on both the web and in-app — and they still want to ensure brand-safe placements — they should partner with supply sources that have a direct relationship with publishers, and they should not rely so much on the open ad-exchange supply.

One-to-one relationships with publishers of high-quality content: for advertisers, as always, the least risky scenario — and one that solves for accidental ad-blocking — is to buy inventory from a trusted source.

Tyler Johnson is the director of programmatic sales and strategy at Verve, where he focuses on strategy development, operationalizing, and sales of Verve’s programmatic solutions.