How Advertisers Can Pursue Brand Safety without Avoiding Sensitive News Content

The push for brand safety has intensified in recent years as advertisers have wised up to the threat of their content popping up alongside extremist YouTube videos and false social media content. One of the ways advertisers manage that threat is by blocking their content from popping up alongside any polarizing political issue such as race relations or efforts to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

But that’s a raw deal for advertisers and publishers, says Rachel Tuffney, EVP of US operations at Dianomi. Publishers need advertiser support for serious stories. Advertisers need to be able to tell their own stories without avoiding 50% of serious news platform content and without blocking stories that may actually resonate with the brands they want to build.

Tuffney spoke to Street Fight to elucidate the trade-offs on this issue and explain how brands can be safe without blocking all sensitive content.

Thanks for taking the time, Rachel. First, what evidence is there for brands navigating the current media environment, including Black Lives Matter protests and the coronavirus, by resorting to blocklists? Can you contextualize or explain this development?

Over the past few years, we’ve seen brands go to great lengths to block negative content. But now, those same efforts are preventing them from supporting content and initiatives that tackle the most important issues in our society, issues that resonate with their own brand and values.

An important effect of this situation of course is that broad keyword-blocking essentially removes funding for important stories related to COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter. The industry needs to get behind publishers and look for sensible ways to both block negative content and support the most important issues in society.

What are the drawbacks of blocklists for advertisers?

Blocklists have always been a tactic used by advertisers and ad tech companies to control where ads are being placed to maintain brand safety. The problem we face now is that society is finally addressing topics such as race relations, but unfortunately, these are often labeled for technical purposes as sensitive – which results in automated “stops” on ads being served.

So we need technical solutions to ensure that, for example, advertising doesn’t support hate but does support journalism which draws attention to the problems and impact of racism and hate. I’m focusing on the social importance of this topic, but there’s also an important commercial incentive for getting past this: media consumption has spiked during these months, which means brands are missing opportunities to connect with audiences.

How do blocklists affect publishers?

Blocklists have immense impact on publishers and media companies. If advertisers implement broad blocklists on keywords and phrases, their ads won’t appear on any content related to those topics. Publishers are then left with the conundrum of little to no monetization opportunity for any content that addresses any topic which could be deemed sensitive.

The financial opportunity they are left with is almost always low-quality ads running on their platform from less reputable players. Not only does this affect the reader’s perception of the publication, it impacts their overall experience as well as how effectively publishers are able to monetize content.

How would you suggest advertisers address the sensitivity of the current environment while still marketing aggressively?

We’re getting this question a lot from our clients, specifically in the financial services and B2B verticals. While marketers need to be mindful, there will always be room for content that has value and relevance to its audience.

Quality native advertising is an excellent way to engage consumers in the right place. Beyond technology, the best advice is to carefully look at your content and make sure that the messages and creative relate to the current environment. Some of this is common sense. For example, I’ve experienced ads involving handshakes and large group interactions that go against social distancing. It’s important to show that you care and that as a brand you’re in touch; these are simple things we should get right.

More generally — as not all the world’s problems can be solved through native advertising — we should encourage the industry to evolve ad blocking techniques and we should work hard to support the efforts of certain agencies and publishers to ring-fence quality supply that supports social movements and other important issues.

How do best practices in today’s media environment align with privacy incentives captured in legislation such as CCPA?

Privacy has been an evolving conversation for advertisers. For years, the industry has relied on third-party data and cookies to understand consumers and match them with ads based on their history. However, consumers are more cautious about their data and the potential misuse of it by companies. While states like California have put firm laws into place and Google announced the phase-out of third-party cookies, these actions mirror what consumers are asking for, which is a better experience with more control on privacy.

In conversations with publishers, we’re hearing that they are excited about the industry reverting back to contextual practices. For them, it makes more sense and improves reader experience, leading to stronger engagement, more page views, and longer time spent on site. Through contextual targeting, ads will better align with the content they are reading, rather than align with previous online activity. This ensures relevance for the advertiser and publisher, so both are aligned and make sense for one and other.

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Joe Zappa is the Managing Editor of Street Fight. He joined Street Fight as a contributing writer in 2015, has compiled the daily newsletter since 2016, and has spearheaded the newsroom's editorial operations since 2018. Shoot him an email at jzappa@streetfightmag.com.